PARIS/BRUSSELS (Reuters) - France said on Friday the United States had sidelined itself in the Middle East by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but the EU’s top diplomat insisted Washington remains a mediator as Europe struggled for unity in its diplomacy.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to move the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem revived old tensions between EU governments that want to see peace in the Middle East but have varying degrees of sympathy towards Israel and the Palestinians.
“I hear some, including Mr Tillerson, say things will happen in time and the hour is for negotiations. Until now (the U.S.) could have had a mediation role in this conflict, but it has excluded itself a little,” French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said, referring to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is in Paris for talks after visiting Brussels and Vienna.
“The reality is they are alone and isolated on this issue,” he told France Inter radio.
With Britain distracted by its planned exit from the European Union, France is trying to lead Europe in Middle East negotiations, organising a peace conference last January.
But it is EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini who represents the bloc in the Middle East Quartet of the United States, United Nations, the EU and Russia.
On Thursday, Mogherini pledged to reinvigorate diplomacy with Russia, the United States, Jordan and others to ensure Palestinians have a capital in Jerusalem too.
She said Washington was still a pivotal peacemaker.
But Hungary blocked a statement planned by all EU 28 governments in response to Trump’s announcement of Wednesday, leaving it to Mogherini to deliver a rejection of it.
“There is no change in Hungary’s Middle East policy compared with the recent past. We have made it clear previously that we urge a negotiated solution,” the foreign ministry said in response to a Reuters request, declining to comment on the U.S. decision.
“We do not consider a joint statement by the 28 member states of the European Union necessary on the matter.”
On Wednesday evening, the Czech foreign ministry said it would begin considering moving the Czech Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem “only based on results of negotiations with key partners in the region and in the world”. Many in Israel saw the Czech ministry’s statement as an endorsement of Trump’s move.
But Mogherini said on Friday Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek had reassured her the statement was “definitely not an act of support for the U.S. administration’s decision.”
“He guaranteed to me that the Czech Republic stays firmly with the common European consolidated position,” Mogherini told a news conference with Jordan’s foreign minister.
Prague accepts Israel’s sovereignty only over West Jerusalem, diplomats say. Palestinians want the capital of a future state they seek to be in East Jerusalem, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and later annexed in a move not recognised internationally.
Mogherini stressed that all EU governments were united on the issue of Jerusalem and in seeking a solution envisaging a Palestinian state in territory - the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem - that Israel took 50 years ago.
The EU believes it has a duty to make its voice heard as the Palestinians’ biggest aid donor and Israel’s biggest trade partner, but policy divisions within the bloc have weakened its influence.
EU foreign ministers will aim to present a unified front to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a meeting in Brussels on Monday. A senior French diplomat said it was crucial that EU governments had a clear message for the Israeli premier.
“What we are going to try and do is convince our European partners when we meet Netanyahu ...to tell him that what is happening with the United States is a serious issue for him, Israel and any peace prospect,” the diplomat said.
Netanyahu will first stop off in Paris on Sunday to hold talks with President Emmanuel Macron.
EU governments have a range of positions, from the Czech Republic’s strong support for Israel, also shared by Germany, to Sweden’s 2014 decision to recognise a future state of Palestine.
The EU is also perceived by some in Israel as being too pro-Palestinian, partly because of the EU’s long-held opposition to Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Additional reporting by Robert Muller and Jan Lopatka in Prague and Gergely Szakacs in Budapest; writing by Robin Emmott; editing by Mark Heinrich and Richard Balmforth