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Will Europe take a leading role on Israel/Palestine?

A new position paper, which echoes previous statements by EU negotiators and leaders, urges the EU to adopt a more confrontational approach toward Jerusalem.

EU High Representative Catherine Ashton (European Union / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

A top European think tank is urging the European Union to take concrete measures to keep open a window for the two-state solution. The report, published two weeks ago, urges European countries to exempt settlements goods from Israeli-European trade agreements, to refrain from contacts with the West Bank’s new university in Ariel and even impose visa requirements on settlers.

The report (PDF), published by the Middle East-North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations and written by Senior Policy Fellow Nick Witney, claims that European support for the Palestinian Authority has created “a culture of dependence,” while removing the occupation’s financial burden from Israel. Due to Israeli restrictions and past agreements which prevented real economic developments, “state building efforts have reached a dead end,” the paper states.

Similar suggestions were raised in April by former European leaders and negotiators in a letter to EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton. Both the letter and the ECFR paper recognize the diplomatic vacuum created by the U.S.’s inability to confront Israeli governments over the occupation, and urge EU action.

The ECFR paper has a couple of interesting observations. First, it recognizes that the political elites in Europe, and not the public, are at the heart of the problem. While the European public is more and more sympathetic to the plight of Palestinians under occupation, EU foreign policy is “on autopilot,” sticking to the Oslo paradigm and framework, even when it’s clear that it serves to maintain the status quo (one could claim that this is the opposite of the American problem, where popular support for Israeli policy remains high even as the elites are beginning to question it). The paper cites economic interests – Israel being an important trade partner of many states – and successful lobbying efforts by Jerusalem as possible explanations for the lack of coherent and unified action by the EU.

The paper also recognizes the failure of positive incentives vis-à-vis Jerusalem:

There is simply no appetite among European governments for anything that might look like sanctioning or punishing Israel. Yet finding positive incentives – carrots, as opposed to sticks – is difficult also. Israelis already enjoy the main things they want from Europe: commercial access to the world’s largest market, visa-free travel and a unique position in the EU’s research and innovation programs.

The ECFR doesn’t have a unified position and the new paper only represents the opinion of its authors, and not that of the entire think-tank. However, put together with the February report by EU diplomats regarding settlements, the decision by 13 member-states to proceed with labeling settlements products and the April letter (discussed above), one can point to a clear trend toward greater involvement in the diplomatic process.

Haaretz’s Barak Ravid reported Sunday morning that the EU’s Foreign Affairs Council was set to vote on directives for the labeling of settlements products this week (the principle decision on the matter already passed last year). However, following pressure from the U.S. – which, according to Ravid, was prompted by an Israeli request – the vote was postponed until June, after Secretary of State John Kerry plans to report on his efforts to renew direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.

It seems that Israel’s effort to prevent labeling settlements products is likely to fail: the labeling directives for member states will eventually pass and might even be implemented. I doubt, however, if the impact of such a step will be more than symbolic in nature. The settlements’ share in Israel’s total exports is not that large, and much of their sales take place in the local market. Given the strong representation settlers enjoy in the current Israeli coalition, I believe they would be able to get at least some government compensation if European trade measures lead to financial losses.

The heart of the matter is that as a whole, the Israeli public views the status quo as the preferred alternative in its relations with the Palestinians – a notion that has only been strengthened by regional changes and the international community’s inability to mobilize on the issue. For years, critics of the occupation have been warning Israel of international isolation due to the country’s occupation and colonization of the West Bank, while the exact opposite has been taking place – Western support for Israel is at an all-time high. Under such circumstances, further statements or symbolic gestures are almost useless, if not outright harmful.

The settlements are an Israeli national policy and not just an initiative of the settlers themselves, so targeting them on their own will be a difficult, probably even impossible task (there are more people employed by the state in the OPT per capita than anywhere else in Israel; as such they are immune to outside pressure). Other recommendations in the ECFR report – like those concerning travel visas for settlers or allowing Palestinian legal action against the occupation – seem to have a greater potential for bringing results, but at the same time they are not likely to be adopted anytime soon.

Altogether, I think that one of the most important developments in the past few month has been the European recognition of the need to give up the Oslo framework. Yet the European Union’s complex consensus mechanisms prevent fast, radical measures, even when they are clearly viewed as necessary. If EU member states want to see change take place on the ground, they will have to adopt a more responsible and pro-active policy on Israel/Palestine, instead of just following the EU’s lead.

EU diplomats recommend sanctions against Israeli settlements
Former senior EU officials: ‘Oslo process has nothing more to offer’

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    1. directrob

      “However, following pressure from the U.S”

      I think that is the main reason why Israel up to now has nothing to fear of Europe. Israel is a strategic partner of the US and the US does not like (to put it mildly) Europe to take action.

      In the mean time companies do feel some pressure ( you can do worse than to read this )


      Reply to Comment
    2. XYZ

      I don’t agree with the assertion that the European public is more sympathetic to the “plight of the Palestinians” than the EU political leadership is. Most people couldn’t care less about the Arab-Israeli conflict, viewing it as one of the numerous endless, unsolvable conflicts in the world. The fact that there is a noisy minority Red-Green alliance of Arabs and Muslims aligned with the radical anti-Israel Left in Europe that attempts to drown out pro-Israel voices does not mean they speak for the majority. In fact, Arab oil money goes more directly into the pockets of the elites, influencing their positions than affecting the average European on the street.
      The EU has passed its peak and is in no position to harrass Israel, especially considering that the progressives’ beloved BDS requires unanimous support from the EU members, something that is very hard to arrange.

      Reply to Comment
    3. Richard Witty

      Europe is as unlikely to succeed in facilitating peace between Israelis and Palestinians as John Kerry is.

      The reason is that both communities regard obedience to the established mythology of 1948 history as the determining factor whether they trust or distrust a facilitator. And, then, by definition, that precludes a facilitator from facilitating, as that implies the reconciliation of two valid narratives, not a single “truth”.

      Reply to Comment
    4. charles-jerusalem

      I am sorry to say that Europe has no credibility whatsoever to mediate a peace deal between Israelis/Jews and Arabs/Muslims/Christians.
      There is just too much in their plate and they just don’t understand the complexity of this war.
      In their eyes the poor Palestinians are the victims and we are their oppressor.
      It can’t work this way. A mediator would ask the Palestinians to face their responsabilities, accept Israel as jewish, abandon armed struggle against civilians and get ready for painful compromissions.
      In return, their would have their land and be able to live their life the way they want, in peace with Israel.
      What’s the big deal ? Yes it is a big deal, because just like us, they think that all the cake belongs to them, one cake and two big eaters who do not want to share.
      So what Europe can bring to the negociations table ? Nothing !!!

      Reply to Comment
    5. Barry Meridian

      Catherine Ashton basically trying to implement her new White paper to appease the Arabs.

      Reply to Comment
    6. Barry Meridian

      I read this great article documenting how the British have always supported the Arabs and Palestinians over Israel going back to the British Mandate.
      Then you start to understand Israel haters like Ashton more.

      In the service of the Palestinians
      Op-ed: In light of its dark past, Britain’s involvement in building of PA’s army very problematic
      Elyakim Haetzni

      Reply to Comment
      • directrob

        Maybe it is time to buy another history book.

        Actually support for the PA army and almost all PA and UNRWA support in the West Bank and Gaza is beneficial for Israel.

        As for the current situation Europe is actually very mild for Israel as if Israel is a friend with a few mistakes. States were totally boycotted for less.

        Reply to Comment
    7. Barry Meridian

      Directrob, that would be a disaster.

      PA Official: ‘If We Had a Nuke, We’d Use It This Morning’ (Video)

      The Palestinian Authority doesn’t need rocks, firebombs, guns and suicide bombers. Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub has a better way to kill Jews: “If we had a nuke, we’d use it this very morning.”
      Tzvi Ben-Gedalyahu
      May 9th, 2013

      Reply to Comment
      • directrob

        Every time the US congress stops parts of PA support look how quickly the Israeli government asks to restore it.

        If your wish comes true it is very bad for Palestinians, but it would also burst Israel’s bubble. Don’t you see the PA helps Israel to keep order in the West Bank and almost all monetary aid to them ultimately lands in Israel?

        Reply to Comment
        • Kolumn9

          Short-term the Israeli government benefits from the status quo and security cooperation with the PA.

          Long-term the only thing keeping the Palestinian cause alive is the billions in aid that keeps the Palestinians in the refugee camps educated to hate Israel and the billions that allows them to maintain an international diplomatic and propaganda presence commonly reserved for medium-tier countries. If UNRWA never existed the Palestinians in Arab countries would have long merged into the local populations. 3 generations of living next to people who speak the same language and have the same religion as you tend to do that unless you are being specifically subsidized to avoid it.

          Reply to Comment
    8. Kolumn9

      No, it will not. Europe is a diplomatic illusion. There is a common market, there is a common currency (for now), but there is no possible joint European foreign policy and individual European countries do not have the weight to lead even if they wanted to, which they really really don’t. The English are wed to the Americans. The French fastidiously maintain a policy of speaking obnoxiously and doing nothing. The Germans have too much historical baggage. The Italians and the Spanish are bankrupt. The Eastern European states are still relying on the US to defend them from the Russians. At least a third of the European Union states are on excellent terms with Israel even if they might disagree on the settlements and it only takes one to derail a united European foreign policy or to dilute it to the point of irrelevance. Catherine Ashton carries no viable sticks and few carrots.

      If anything, the EU system prevents individual states from taking steps that might pressure Israel because they have lost control of their domestic markets [and borders] to a dysfunctional governing structure incapable by design [or by lack thereof] of cohesive action on controversial issues.

      Reply to Comment