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Dim prospects for international pressure to end occupation

The international community is highly unlikely to pressure Israel to end the occupation. Both the U.S. and Europe are expanding cooperation and aid, and refuse to use bilateral ties as leverage to change Israeli policy. A solution must come from Israelis or Palestinians or both; the outside world has an auxiliary role, at best

One of the growing signs of pessimism regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the belief of many activists that only external pressure on Israel can lead to a just solution. This is the premise of a wide spectrum of efforts, from those calling for mild pressure and diplomatic initiatives, to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The latter often points to the example of South Africa, where sanctions and international isolation contributed to the demise of the Apartheid regime.

Beyond the questions of principle and justice, which are certainly relevant, one must also address the issue of efficacy. Do we have any reason to believe that international pressure on Israel, let alone sanctions, is at all likely? There is an abundance of evidence that points to an emphatically negative answer.

The most important international actor today is, of course, the United States. That country also happens to be Israel’s staunchest ally. Instead of growing more critical of the occupation as it nears the end of its first half century, Washington is ever less likely to oppose Israel’s policies, let alone pressure its government. After some half-hearted attempts at (very mild) pressure during the beginning of his term, the Obama administration has quickly retreated to a position of unquestioning support, lavishing Israel with aid and cooperation. While Washington’s positions on the Palestinian issue have not really changed, using its leverage against Israel in any way is not really on the agenda.

So maybe Europe is the answer? Although not as important as the United States, Europeans’ extensive commercial and cultural ties with Israel provide them with significant tools to apply pressure, if they choose. Certainly, European countries have been far more willing to harshly condemn Israel’s actions and policies than recent American administrations.

But over the past two decades (at least) they have clearly made a strategic choice to move in the opposite direction. Instead of holding relations with Israel hostage to progress on the Palestinian issue, they have decided to largely plough ahead with strengthening ties. Their hope is that by being friendlier to Israel, they can exert more influence and gain the ear of its government. As Dr. Claire Spencer wrote (PDF) for the Israeli European Policy Network:

The approach has been to progressively normalise relations with Israel, using a succession of bilateral agreements, such as the lifting of tariffs on 95% of Israeli exports of processed goods in May 2008 and the Common Aviation Area approved by the European Parliament in February 2009 (notably in the period since the Gaza conflict).

Despite the clear failure of this approach, Europe is showing no signs of doubt or reversing course. On the contrary: the outbreak of the second Intifada, the collapse of peace talks, and massive Palestinian civilian casualties (along with many Israeli ones, as well), have hardly slowly down this process. Take this passage from an EU document on cooperation with Israel (PDF):

Since  1996 when it joined the 4th Research Framework Programme (FP4), Israel has been one of  only two non-European countries fully associated to the EU’s research funding  programmes and over time has constantly increased its participation and success rate in obtaining grants. Under the Sixth Research Framework Programme (FP6 – 2002-2006) Israeli research bodies participated in over 600 research projects in consortia with their European counterparts. The EU is now Israel’s second biggest source of research funding.

So, instead of weakening ties with Israel, or even holding back, the European Union has continued to forcefully advance them, even giving Israel preferential treatment. In 2009, after the Gaza war, the EU did halt further progress for a while (although not completely, as Dr. Spencer’s words above indicate). Yet, despite the election of the hardline Netanyahu government, and its ever more radical settlement policy, in 2010 European nations supported Israel’s accession to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and the EU has recently decided to move ahead with further expansion of bilateral ties. Support for this move was unanimous among all EU ministers.

Other international actors either have little influence, or carry responsibility for human rights violations far worse than the occupation. As the divestment and boycott elements of the BDS campaign suggest, many activists pin their hopes on the engagement of ordinary people who will refuse to buy Israeli goods or pressure investment funds to sell their holding in Israeli companies. Yet, despite some isolated successes, especially in the cultural field, these efforts have made little more headway than the route of sanctions. Israel’s economy is too diversified and low-profile to be seriously affected by such diffuse actions.

So, regardless of its merits, the effort to change Israeli policy from without seems hopeless. One can condemn or applaud the international community on its approach to Israel, but it is hard to deny this policy has gone in the opposite direction from pressure and sanctions, and shows no indications of changing any time soon. Although outside actors may have a role to play, the only realistic scenario is for them to play an auxiliary part in a process of change that must come from either Israelis or Palestinians or both.

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    1. RichardL

      A timely, honest analysis that is devoid of any romantic fantasy. I merely question one point. I do not believe that the EU is trying to influence Israel by being friendlier to it. I think they are merely being cowardly and hypocritical by refusing to allow human rights abuses to get in the way of strengthening relations with possibly the world’s most influential nation.

      Reply to Comment
    2. I’m not so sure about that. We see a big change in the way the occupation is reported. Not so much the big, abstract narrative, but more focus on the civic rights. More and more countries don’t accept products from the OPT with Israeli labels, or the opposite as the Botox scheme in Lebanon.
      I even read articles now about the destruction of water wells or houses payed for with EU money, without at least a paragraph about terrorism, this is a change.
      The new generation of Palestinians without much sympathy for Fatah or Hamas, is also changing the way people look at the situation.
      It takes a long time to change public opinion after decades of Politics of Invisibility, but there is a change.
      Governments will have to listen to the public when their voices can’t be silenced.
      As to Obama, I don’t see what is half-hearted in: “So let there be no doubt: the situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable.”
      (Cairo Speech 2009)
      Power and lies go hand in hand, but it’s not just leaders who decide what happens in the long term.

      Reply to Comment
      • PS
        The British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gould, said similar things in an article in The Guardian earlier this month: ‘Israel losing international support’.

        “The centre ground, the majority, the British public may not be expert, but they are not stupid and they see a stream of announcements about new building in settlements, they read stories about what’s going on in the West Bank, they read about restrictions in Gaza. The substance of what’s going wrong is really what’s driving this,”

        We’ll have to see how this will be countered by The Guardian’s suprising new asset, the trigger happy (as to critics of the Jewish State) Josh Trevino.

        Reply to Comment
        • Carl

          In Europe I’d say the Palestinian cause has definitely won in the battle for public opinion. I don’t watch the US so closely, but it seems that there’s much more room for debate – especially amongst US Jews – around the I/P issue.

          I can see that there’s still little electorally to be gained from a US incumbent taking even a measured approach, but I can’t see what European politicians get from it electorally. Maybe it’s a matter of economics and short termism. Dunno but it’s an interesting observation Roi.

          As to the efficacy of sanctions, well without EU trade agreements and US military support it’s hard to see how it could be a viable state in the long term given the geo-political state it’s in. Mind there’s always China and Russia I suppose.

          Reply to Comment
    3. XYZ

      The fact is that “the world” is well aware of the fact that the it is the Palestinians who have decided to keep “the occupation” going because of their refusal to accept a compromise peace with Israel which has been offered three times since 1999 (Barak’s offer to Arafat in 2000, Sharon and Olmert’s offer of a unilateral withdrawal in 2005-6 and then Olmert’s offer to Abbas in 2008). Now, the ‘progressives’ will jump up and scream “ISRAEL DIDN’T OFFER ENOUGH”. But that is irrelevant. The world hears offers were made and repeatedly turned down. The details are not important. If the occupation was that onerous, and ending it was the main concern of the Palestinian leadership, then the offers would have been accepted. Since they weren’t, we concludie that “ending the occupation” is not the highest priority for the Palestinian leadership….and here I am talking only about FATAH’s people in the Palestinian Authority. HAMAS adds a whole new dimension, since they explicitlly reject any compromise peace on any terms.

      Europe faces long-term economic stagnation and Israel is an attractive trading partner. In any events, sanctions wouldn’t make any difference, since any extra Israeli “flexibility” with the Palestinians would STILL be met with an ongoing refusal by the Palestinians to meet everyone else half way.
      The world doesn’t care about the Palestinians, the world doesn’t care about the settlements, the world simply looks at the Arab-Israeli conflict as one of those intractable conflicts that we just all have to live with.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Jack

      EU is so predictable these days, US and Israel say jump, EU say how high. And these same states wonder why there is no peace… why dont they use the same mechanism they have used on Iran? Sanctions, threats of war and embargo?

      Reply to Comment
    5. Richard Witty

      What do you suggest, Roi?

      I’ve sent you my suggestions, please comment.

      Reply to Comment