UN chief faces stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts in first visit


UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres meets Israeli leaders Monday on his first visit since taking office, with long-stalled peace efforts with the Palestinians and a United Nations force in Lebanon high on the agenda.
Guterres is likely to seek to push Israel and Palestinian leaders closer to renewed talks on their decades-old conflict during his three-day visit that ends Wednesday, but the interests of Israeli leaders lie elsewhere for now.
They have said they want to press Guterres on the UN peacekeeping force in neighbouring Lebanon, known as UNIFIL, accusing it of “blindness” to what they call an arms buildup by Hezbollah.
The trip comes as the UN Security Council debates renewing the force’s mandate for a year, with a vote expected on Wednesday.
After meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, Guterres is due in Ramallah on Tuesday for talks with Palestinian prime minister Rami Hamdallah. Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas is visiting Turkey and is not expected to meet Guterres during the trip. Guterres will then travel to the Gaza Strip on Wednesday.
After arriving on Sunday evening, the UN chief met Jason Greenblatt, a top aide to US President Donald Trump charged with pursuing Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Greenblatt was part of a US delegation last week including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner that held talks with Netanyahu and Abbas. He remained in the region for further discussions.
Guterres, a former Portuguese prime minister who took office in January, is likely to try to take steps to keep the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a viable option at a time when it is under threat.
Peace efforts have been at a standstill since April 2014 and Israeli settlement building in the occupied West Bank has continued. Trump has said he wants to reach the “ultimate deal” – Israeli-Palestinian peace – but he himself has cast doubt on the two-state solution, saying he could support a single state if it meant peace.
Such statements deeply concern Palestinians, while delighting right-wing Israelis who want their country to annex most of the West Bank. The two-state solution envisions an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel and has been the focus of international diplomacy since at least the early 1990s.
At the same time, many political analysts say both Netanyahu and Abbas are not in position to make any major concessions for now. Netanyahu faces pressure from his right-wing base not to do so and to continue settlement building, and there is little incentive at the moment for him to change course, some analysts say.
The 82-year-old Palestinian leader is unpopular and his Fatah party, based in the West Bank, continues to be divided from Hamas, the militant movement that runs the Gaza Strip. Israeli leaders have made clear they want to discuss other topics with Guterres, including Hezbollah.
On Sunday, Israeli deputy foreign minister Tzipi Hotovely echoed US claims that the commander of the United Nations force in Lebanon was turning a blind eye to Hezbollah weapons smuggling.
Israel fought a war against the Lebanese Shiah group in 2006. “We shall not allow this blindness to continue,” Hotovely said. She said that Hezbollah’s deployment along Lebanon’s border with Israel would be a “very central issue” in the discussions with Guterres.
“He will meet the head of military intelligence and receive a briefing, and also meet the prime minister, and I am sure that he will not leave here with the feeling that the mandate given to the UN is being implemented on the ground,” Hotovely said.
United Nations spokesperson Stephane Dujarric has however expressed “full confidence” in the force’s commander. Netanyahu has also frequently spoken of what he sees as Israel’s arch-rival Iran seeking to expand its presence in the Middle East, particularly in neighbouring Syria, and will likely discuss this with Guterres.
Beyond that, Israeli officials regularly accuse UN bodies of bias against their country, saying they disproportionately focus on its occupation of Palestinian territory, and are likely to call on Guterres to address it.