EU rebuffs Israeli minister for bringing up artificial island at Gaza talks

Diplomats criticise Israel's rejection of Palestinian statehood as they discuss war with regional partners

Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs, Israel Katz, arrives ahead of the European Foreign Ministers Council meeting in Brussels. EPA
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The EU's High Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, on Monday criticised Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz for wasting the time of the bloc's 27 foreign ministers during a meeting to discuss the Gaza war.

Mr Katz showed the ministers videos of "an artificial island" and "building a railway linking up the Middle East with India", Mr Borrell said at a news briefing after 10 hours of meetings with Arab and EU diplomats.

"I think that the minister could have made better use of his time and focus on the security of his country, bearing in mind the high number of deaths in Gaza," he said.

"The minister showed us very little, if nothing, to do with the proposal we were discussing."

Mr Borrell's comments came as the rift between Israel and the West on the future of a Palestinian state has become increasingly apparent.

The US and the EU have expressed disappointment at recent comments made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejecting Palestinian statehood.

Foreign affairs ministers from the Middle East made the rare move of attending a meeting of EU ministers in Brussels to discuss the humanitarian situation in Gaza, where more than 25,000 people have died in Israel's military operation since October 7 Hamas-led attacks killed about 1,200 Israelis.

Also on the agenda was a peace plan for the region put forward by the EU's external action service, led by Mr Borrell. It includes a Palestinian state, security guarantees for Israel and full normalisation with Arab states.

Mr Katz and Palestinian Foreign Affairs Minister Riyad Al Maliki held separate meetings with their EU counterparts and did not meet in person.

Israel's apparent lack of interest in the proposal may pose challenges for future discussions, said Mr Borrell.

"If Israel doesn't want that solution it's going to be difficult to take part in discussions to build that solution, but that doesn't stop everybody else from doing it," he said.

"If that proposal isn't agreed, then there is some leverage, but we're still in the early stages."

The EU has been deeply divided over the Gaza war, with some countries including Germany vigorously opposing the calls for a ceasefire supported by others such as France and Belgium.

Mr Borrell gave few details about Mr Katz's proposals about an artificial island, aside from saying that it was "some kind of port".

Mr Katz is known to have made proposals involving an artificial island off the coast of Gaza before.

A 2017 report by the Times of Israel said he had raised the idea for years.

It involved building a $5 billion island with international funds over 534 hectares, which would remain under Israeli security control and provide Gaza with essential services.

Mr Al Maliki on Monday also rejected the plan after media reports that it involved the displacement of Palestinians to the island.

“The land of Palestine is ours and we will remain there,” he told reporters.

Mr Al Maliki said that “those who had the idea” of creating an artificial island may go live on it if they wish.

Several EU ministers criticised the Israeli government's rejection of a two-state solution.

“Which are the other solutions they have in mind?” said Mr Borrell ahead of the talks.

“To make all the Palestinians leave? To kill off them? From now on, I will not talk about the peace process but about the two-state solution process. We are serious about that.”

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said: “The two-state solution is the only solution, and even those who don't want to know about it have not yet come up with any other alternative."

Israel “cannot just be left unaccountable” for rejecting a two-state solution, said Jordan's Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi.

Mr Katz, however, did not address the possibility of a Palestinian state to the media.

Holding pictures of Israeli hostages in Gaza, including one-year-old baby Kfir Bibas, he said Israeli soldiers were fighting in the enclave with two goals: “to bring back our hostages and restore security for citizens of Israel".

Reluctance to call for a ceasefire in Gaza has caused bewilderment in much of the Arab world, most of all from Palestinians who have accused the West of double standards.

“We have to call collectively for a ceasefire,” said Mr Al Maliki.

He also called on Brussels to introduce sanctions against Israel, which is unlikely to happen.

Talk of blacklisting extremist settlers from European soil has been delayed due to reluctance from some member states. The EU issued sanctions on Hamas last week.

“The collective responsibility of the EU right now lies in this particular moment at a time when they have to show leadership and courage,” Mr Al Maliki said.

“Otherwise, what we have been saying for a long time about double standards will be clearly shown.”

Updated: January 23, 2024, 6:59 AM