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.