EU policy on Israel: ‘More-for-more’ or carrots and sticks?

Nothing is polarizing European politicians as much as Israel-Palestine, says a member of the EU Parliament. Notes from a symposium in the Netherlands.

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton with PM Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo: GPO/Avi Ohayun)
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton with PM Benjamin Netanyahu (Photo: GPO/Avi Ohayun)

I took part in a one-day symposium on the EU’s policy toward Israel/Palestine last week in The Hague. The event, which took place at the Clingendael Institute, was hosted by “A Different Jewish Voice,” a local pro-peace group. Among the speakers were the EU’s former envoy to the region, the current EU director for Middle East policy and three Dutch politicians, all from the center-Left. There were some interesting comments made, which I would like to share with our readers.

The central issues discussed at the symposium were: should Europe develop its own policy, separate from the American-led Kerry process? What should such a policy look like? Is there room for initiating measures against the government in Jerusalem if it continues with its current settlement policies?

Some speakers expressed resentment that the EU doesn’t have a leading role in shaping the political arrangement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but is nevertheless asked to finance them. The fact that EU foreign policy chief Cathrine Ashton is not briefed more frequently and more thoroughly on the process was brought up as an example of Europe’s lesser role.

The possibility of Europe taking steps against the occupation was a recurring theme, along with whether EU policy toward Israel should include more “sticks,” or simply keep with its “more-for-more” policy that rewards Israel only for progress toward a two-state solution. Former EU Mideast envoy Miguel Moratinos argued against sticks, saying they would simply result in Israel pushing the EU out the process. “It’s not going to work,” he said. However, Moratinos strongly argued for the EU to recognize Palestine, whether the process fails or succeed.

I found some comments by Marietje Schaake, a Dutch representative to the European Parliament, to be very interesting (the following are not quotes but a summary of my written notes): according to Schaake, there is no other foreign policy topic that polarizes the European Parliament like Israel/Palestine. It has reached the point where the EU trade delegation to the Palestinian side is no longer “on speaking terms” with the trade delegation to the Israeli side .(I’ve witnessed this dynamic before: diplomats who work in the OPT become frustrated and angry over the failure to act on the Palestinian issue.) She noted that the division is principally generational, and that believes Israel will face a much tougher diplomatic reality once the baby boomer generation of EU politicians and diplomats leave their posts.

The “more-for-more” strategy exists more on paper than in real life, Schaake said, and she called on the EU to uphold its existing agreements with Israel. However, she opposed the idea of sanctions and advocated stronger European engagement with Israeli civil society.

The most senior EU official present was the European External Action Service’s Middle East director, Christian Berger. Mr. Berger acknowledged that for now, Kerry “is the only game in town.” He noted that during George W. Bush’s first term, U.S. involvement substantially decreased and when Israel destroyed the PA, “the EU was called upon to pick up the pieces.” Since then, Berger said, the EU has been urging Washington to be more involved; so the current process is something Europe actually wanted.

However, Mr. Berger also said that if nothing comes of the two-state solution, the EU will need to rethink the ways it can support the Palestinians. This was his most important statement, referring to concrete measures that could be taken if the process fails.

Like Ms. Schaake, Mr. Berger mentioned Article 2 of the 1995 trade agreement between Israel and the EU, which conditions the agreement on respect for human rights, and could provide the EU with a platform for action. (Article 2 states that, “relations between the Parties, as well as all the provisions of the Agreement itself, shall be based on respect for human rights and democratic principles, which guides their internal and international policy and constitutes an essential element of this Agreement.)

It should be noted that Christian Berger was personally targeted in the Israeli press following the publications of the guidelines on EU projects in Israel last summer. Mr. Berger even referred to this criticism, stating that the guidelines are in accordance with EU policy, and “not the result of over-zealous bureaucrats.”

As for the Israeli and Palestinian speakers: Palestinian Adel Atieh was very skeptical about the Kerry process and urged more action by the EU. I said what I have written here many times: the entire Israeli system, at every level, has an inherent tendency toward maintaining current trends on the ground (what we often refer to as the status quo). Without major external pressure or another Palestinian revolt, those trends are unlikely to change on any fundamental level.

Another Israeli speaker, Prof. Menachem Klein, had some interesting things to say on using the legal term “occupation” to describe reality in the West Bank and Gaza. I asked Klein to publish his remarks, and I will do so here next week.

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At the end of the day I walked away with the impression that the debate in the EU is indeed shifting; but more importantly, unlike in the U.S., the conversation in Europe is focused on political action. Most of the time I feel that in the U.S. they are still talking about how to talk about Israel/Palestine, whereas actual policies are being discussed in The Hague. (The U.S. only discusses policies vis-a-vis the Palestinians, hence their “success” in getting concessions out of them.) At the same time, it was clear that for the duration of the Kerry process, no other tracks, ideas or policies will be implemented.

It was interesting to see acknowledgement of the fact that as long as the current status quo persists, the EU is actually funding the occupation. As long as Ramallah continues asking for that funding, however, the EU is unlikely to cut it off.

Measures like labeling settlement products seem to truly be around the corner, especially if the current talks collapse. However, such measures are unlikely to have more than a psychological effect on Israelis due to the Israeli government providing compensation to settlers for any loss of income, among other reasons.

On the other hand, if the EU starts targeting Israeli companies and institutions that operate in the West Bank, it could have a huge impact on Israeli policy and on the Israeli financial and business elites’ willingness to take part in those policies. So even if the EU decides to cut ties with the occupation, a lot depends on the way EU members interpret what that actually means.

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Ending the occupation: No way around direct pressure on Israel