Statement to the press by Jean-Yves Le Drian, Minister for Europe and Foreign Affairs, following the European Union Foreign Affairs Council (Paris, 18 May 2021)


Ladies and gentlemen,

The Foreign Affairs Council meeting is not over, but given diary constraints, as I need to join the President of the Republic at the Conference on the Financing of African Economies, I would still like to seize this opportunity to talk to you. The President may come back to this subject when he talks to the press later.

What I really want to say is both a personal and a political belief. What is happening – these moments of great violence – shows that the idea that some entertained for a while, that we could simply ignore the conflict in the Middle East and that it would go away on its own, on the basis that things would sort themselves out with time if we pretended to forget they existed, is disappearing. It was a fancy of the mind and, on the contrary, reality is returning, violently.

We have long been active on this subject, and, with the President’s agreement of course, I have spent two years seeking, with my Egyptian, Jordanian and German colleagues in what was called the Amman Group, how we could get the peace process back on track, because we were convinced that that situation would not hold. And I must say that we were not all that successful, but we did work, we talked to our partners from the Palestinian Authority and our Israeli partner, in one way or another, and we exchanged all our information because we knew that the time would come when the parties would have to come back to the table. Those who pretended to forget are now confronted with that reality. The last meeting we had together, in this group of four, was in Paris on 11 March.

I believe one of the causes of today’s dramatic situation is precisely that there is no prospect of a political process, and what has to be done is to find paths to a political process but, first and foremost, ensure the hostilities come to a halt.

It is with this in mind that I spoke at today’s Foreign Affairs Council meeting, because I am convinced that, faced with the escalation of violence, the European Union must play a full role in de-escalation efforts, as the situation on the ground is extremely concerning.

There has been a very heavy human toll. Palestinian and Israeli families are grieving, and there are terrible images that can leave nobody unmoved. In any case, I am convinced that we cannot just wait for this to sort itself out. And so we need to try to bring about a cessation of hostilities, through convergent initiatives and pressure, as quickly as possible, and the European Union needs to speak out and play its role. We support the efforts initiated by the High Representative and his teams with this in mind.

I should also say that we have had a lot of contact with many of our counterparts in recent days. I have spoken with Antony Blinken, and on several occasions with my Egyptian counterpart, my Palestinian counterpart, my Israeli counterpart and my Jordanian counterpart. The President of the Republic is himself launching many initiatives. At noon today, there was a meeting between President Macron, President al-Sisi and the King of Jordan, with the aim of finding the right mediation to achieve, firstly, a ceasefire, and a resumption of the peace process. He will no doubt talk about it later during his press briefing.

I have also dialogued a lot with my Jordanian counterpart, recalling our commitment to preserving the historical status quo regarding the Holy Places and our opposition to the eviction of Palestinian families.

Our efforts are going to continue, as each additional day increases the risk of the conflict spreading to the West Bank, the risk of violence within Israel itself, the risk of violence spreading regionally and the risk of the momentum in the normalization of relations between Israel and Arab countries being undermined. And we have, on several occasions, condemned the actions of Hamas, its indiscriminate and blind rocket attacks, which are contrary to international law and put the Israeli population in serious danger, instrumentalizing actions that had been taken, particularly in Jerusalem, regarding certain families. I have in mind Sheikh Jarrah in particular, and I also have in mind the debate on respect for the status quo regarding the Holy Places. On the part of Hamas, there was a form of instrumentalization of this situation, which is unacceptable and totally reprehensible.

In the same vein, we consider that Israel’s right to security is unquestionable, and that the right to self-defence exists, but that right must be exercised proportionately and in compliance with international humanitarian law. In particular, we very clearly and very strongly hope, with the ceasefire in mind, that no land operations are envisaged.

At the same time, since as we have noted, you are here because of this final point – and it is not over, the session has been suspended and will resume – we have noted common ground in the discussions with the EU27 which I believe will enable the representatives to speak out later: 1) about the need for a cessation of hostilities as soon as possible; 2) about the need to relaunch the peace process as soon as possible and to find the path to dialogue; 3) about using the Quartet (i.e. the mediation and discussion body created during the second Intifada in, I believe, 2002, comprising the United Nations, the European Union, Russia and the United States); and, as we wanted and as the European Union will demonstrate, 4) about collaborating with the Secretary-General of the United Nations to ensure that within the Security Council we can very quickly confirm this shared desire for a ceasefire as quickly as possible, opening up the path to a renewed peace process.

That was what I wanted to say to you here today. I think that all that should be finalized in a few minutes but I didn’t want to keep you waiting any longer.

Q - With regard to the European Union, there are clearly divisions between Europeans, in particular with Hungary? And at the Security Council, how can you get round the American blockage?

A - This shows that it is in everyone’s interest to have a process based on a ceasefire, because from our point of view, a ceasefire would also be in Israel’s interest. It is in the interest of Palestinian and Israeli civilian populations, and we are making these arguments to all parties. Europe must also speak with a single voice. And this convergence of views, which I can feel is now emerging, should make this possible. And when Europe speaks with a single voice, it has influence.

As regards the United States, we spoke with Antony Blinken. They are currently discussing the possibility of initiatives. If we could implement the Quartet mechanism, this would help find the ad hoc location to continue discussions and create a process which could take place at a later date.

There is no doubt that the political situation in Israel and the Territories does not help. I believe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never been more serious than it is now; because in the past we have had crises which seemed to overlook this difficult situation, and now there are both unacceptable rocket attacks from Hamas and Israel’s response which we believe must remain proportionate. And at the same time, conflict in the West Bank and within Israel itself, in Israeli cities. And then risks within the region, because as I said a moment ago, rockets have been launched from southern Lebanon and a few from Syria too. So the situation could escalate. And that is why, in everyone’s interest, we must ensure that we can quickly reach a clear position on the cessation of hostilities, preferably at the Security Council.

Q - Has there been a shift in France’s position – when it said this week that Israel has a right to defend itself – which is closer to the US position? You added that the response must be proportionate. Is it proportionate?

A - We have always said that. We have always said that self-defence exists. Because the start of the aggressive action came from Hamas. And we could understand that Israel could not accept the indiscriminate attacks initiated by Hamas. We urge Israel to exercise caution, as self-defence must be proportionate, in accordance with Article 51 of the United Nations Charter.

Q - You talked about resuming the work of the Quartet, which has not been heard from much since 2013. Is settlement-building a stumbling block? We’re talking about a ceasefire, which is fine, but then what?

A - We have always been extremely clear and firm in condemning all forms of settlement-building. France’s position is the same as the European Union’s. And it is the position which I believe I reiterated in my last statement a few days ago.