The EU has become effectively paralyzed in its ability to react to and meaningfully impact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A recent visit by Arab members of Knesset represents an opportunity for both the EU and civil society in Israel to engage in new ways.
By Nimrod Goren
The EU quite frequently expresses criticism over Israeli policies and legislation that damage prospects of achieving the two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts or that run counter to the principles of democracy and human rights. Israel’s recent Jewish Nation-State Law ties both aspects together – it contradicts the value of equality that appears in Israel’s Declaration of Independence, and it places additional obstacles on the path to a future peace agreement. EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini emphasized this in her recent public statements, as well as in her decision to meet a delegation of Arab members of Knesset from the Joint List, which arrived in Brussels to protest the Nation State Law earlier this month.
In recent years, the EU has found it increasingly difficult to have an impact on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Internal divisions and differences of opinions among member states – especially between those in western and northern Europe and those in central and eastern Europe – have prevented meaningful decisions on the topic in the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council since 2016. The split within the EU has become evident even in UN votes, such as the vote regarding the U.S. decision to relocate its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is working to deepen these divisions and to leverage them to his benefit. He recently stated this in public, on his way to a visit in Lithuania. Israel under his leadership is trying to limit the EU’s ability to reach the consensus needed to make decisions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is doing so by fostering alliances with various groupings of European countries – the Visegrad group (Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia, and Poland), the Baltic states (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia), the Hellenic states (Cyprus and Greece), and next in line may be the Balkan states. This is done in parallel to growing criticism of the EU by top Israeli ministers, often including insults and portrayals of the EU – Israel’s largest trade partner – as a rival rather than a friend and partner.
The EU has not yet found effective policy solutions to these developments. It also does not see a sense of urgency to do so, particularly at a time when no Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are in sight and while the EU is preoccupied with more pressing internal and regional challenges. Nevertheless, the EU is not giving up on voicing its opinions and searching for paths for taking action, even if the potential impact is limited. In addition to condemnations, voicing concern, and conveying messages via traditional diplomatic channels, the EU is also working to maintain, foster, and deepen its ties with those in Israeli society who support peace, democracy, and human rights. This is evident in the support given to Israeli pro-peace civil society organizations and hosting relevant Israeli politicians in Brussels.
This month wasn’t the first time Arab members of Knesset visited Brussels. Most recently, a delegation from the Joint List visited the European Parliament in November 2017. Their latest meeting with Mogherini is a step forward in their efforts to internationalize their quest for equality within Israel and to protest Netanyahu’s policies. This activism in the international arena draws criticism in Israel but it is very much in line with how modern diplomacy actually works in the 21st century. Citizens, organizations, businesses, and politicians can now take a larger role than ever in shaping foreign relations, which is no longer the exclusive domain of ministries of foreign affairs.
The increased involvement of Arab members of Knesset in foreign affairs holds potential that goes well beyond their current protest against the Jewish Nation-State Law. It can lead to an important and constructive role in future peace negotiations, and in efforts to improve ties between Israel and Arab (and Muslim) countries. To date, their involvement in these issues has been low, but the potential is significant.
The EU, from its perspective, sees meeting Israel’s Arab legislators as another opportunity to convey to the Israeli government its deep concern over the direction in which Israel is heading, and to declare its partnership with those in Israel – Arabs and Jews alike – who are working to change Israel’s course. This support, which takes various forms, is welcomed by a large number of pro-peace and progressive Israelis, and should continue.
Dr. Nimrod Goren is Head of Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.