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Mixed messages from a hectic week of diplomacy

Premier Benjamin Netanyahu met with United Nations secretary general António Guterres and President Trump's envoy Jared Kushner this week. The outcomes from these meetings bear closer analysis

    Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed that he will never evacuate the settlements — shortly after telling an American delegation to Israel that peace is “within our reach”.

    The Israeli Prime Minister delivered an impassioned ten-minute speech in the West Bank on Monday, promising: “We have returned here to stay forever, there will be no more uprooting of settlements in the Land of Israel.”

    It was, for his audience of settlers celebrating 50 years since Israel captured the West Bank, a rousing speech. Mr Netanyahu spoke about the historical and religious importance of the West Bank to Jews and emotively recalled his first time there after its capture when “my excitement knew no bounds”. He said he is convinced that leaving the settlements would not bring peace.

    Four days earlier Mr Netanyahu met a delegation sent to Israel by US President Donald Trump, led by the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Mr Kushner said that his boss is “very committed” to a peace deal and that the Israelis are following his wishes and “engaging very thoughtfully and respectfully”.

    Mr Netanyahu’s promise seems to clash with America’s long-standing hope for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which involves settlement evacuations and the setting up of a Palestinian state. Mr Kushner has not responded to the speech, and neither have his colleagues in Washington, fuelling speculation that the Trump administration may be considering a different, more Netanyahu-compatible, kind of peace plan.

    The other top-level international guest to visit Israel this week showed no such restraint. United Nations secretary general António Guterres said of Mr Netanyahu’s speech: “It is clear that there is a disagreement on that matter.” Mr Guterres called settlement activity “an obstacle to the two-state solution” and “illegal under international law”.

    The UN chief was resolute that there will be no reliable path to peace without Israeli pullouts. “A two-state solution that will end the occupation and, with the creation of conditions, also the suffering even to the Palestinian people, is in my opinion the only way to guarantee that peace is established,” Mr Guterres said after meeting Palestinian Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah.

    During a difficult visit, Mr Guterres was also faced with Israeli alarm about the situation in Syria and concerns that Iran is building precision missiles in Syria and Lebanon. Mr Netanyahu told him that Iran “wants to use Syria and Lebanon as war-fronts against its declared goal to eradicate Israel”. He added that Iran is developing strength on the ground in Syria and missiles factories in both Syria and Lebanon to do this. Jerusalem is frustrated at the UN’s inability to take action against Iran.

    As well as long discussions about Iranian power, Mr Guterres was subjected to a major dressing down from Mr Netanyahu. “There is no question that we’ve had a troubled relationship with the UN,” the Israeli leader told him. “I think it has an absurd obsession with Israel, flagrantly discriminatory tactics.”

    Mr Netanyahu claimed that “objectively we can say that the UN has failed” in its mandate of peace and security when it comes to Israel. And he expressed fury towards the UN’s cultural body Unesco, which has passed resolutions airbrushing the Jewish history of Jerusalem. Mr Netanyahu said that Unesco “denies the connection 3,000 years old of the Jewish people to our eternal capital, Jerusalem”.

    Mr Netanyahu went on to say that the UN is mandated to pursue peace, “but it allows Palestinian hate speech to flourish in its institutions” and that it is mandated to stand up for human rights, “but it allows in its various forms the worst human rights violators to take up the cudgel and to accuse Israel of violating human rights”.

    He urged Mr Guterres to make a change, saying that since assuming office in January the former prime minister of Portugal has shown a desire “to turn a new page in the relations between Israel and the UN”. Mr Netanyahu said that “the time has come to restore moral clarity at the UN” and that while the secretary general’s powers are limited, Mr Guterres can “make an important difference”.

    Israel’s President Reuven Rivlin was gentler with the UN guest, but was on message. Mr Rivlin urged Mr Guterres to end “the discrimination against Israel” in parts of the UN, saying: “This targeting of Israel, this singling out of the world’s only Jewish State — and even actions and statements that threaten to destroy Israel — are unacceptable and should come at a price.”

    Mr Guterres did not give any detailed public response to the complaints he heard about the UN, but he did commit himself to stressing the value of impartiality at the UN. He said: “Impartiality means treating all states equally, and I am totally committed to that in my action and in everything I can do for the organisation I lead.”

    He decried people who call for Israel’s destruction, saying that they are engaged in “a form of modern antisemitism”. Referencing the events in Charlottesville, he promised “commitment to do everything possible to fight antisemitism in all its expressions”.

    Despite diplomatic tensions between the UN and Israel, Mr Guterres’s credentials in opposing antisemitism are seen as strong. Robert Singer, CEO of the World Jewish Congress, told him during a reception on Monday that his “principled public stance against antisemitism is admired by Jews around the world”. Mr Singer added: ”We are grateful to have you as our determined ally in this fight.”

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