Notes from Brussels: Israel, U.S. and the growing European involvement in the conflict

Attendants at a conference on the peace process in Brussels couldn’t believe their ears after what the representative of Israel’s settler party had to say.

The European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) and MP Marietje Schaake of the Netherlands hosted an event in the European Parliament in Brussels on the European Union’s role in the Israel/Palestine question. I participated in the first of two panels – below are some of my impressions from the day’s events:

This was the third discussion of this sort that I took part in within just three weeks. In that sense, I think that 2013 was indeed a transformative year, with Europe becoming, for the first time, a major stakeholder in the political debate, and not just the bankroller for whatever idea the U.S. promotes.

This understanding, which is shared by all parties, is a result of the publication of the guidelines regarding EU projects in Israel, the intention to label settlement products and the decision by private companies or corporations to reconsider investments in Israeli firms which are located or invested in the West Bank. And while the official line you often hear from the EU is that these are only bureaucratic procedures – a long overdue implementation of its own laws and regulations – one could also detect a certain satisfaction in Brussels from the ability to gain the respect of other players, not to mention winning Israel’s attention for the first time.

Although some of the European measures have been put on hold until the fate of the diplomatic process becomes clear, I do not think Brussels is going to let go, especially since European involvement is very different in its nature from the American kind. While the Israel/Palestine policy in the U.S. is defined and executed mostly by the political echelon – and is therefore prone to constant changes – the EU’s involvement has a lot to do with the bureaucracy, and thus tends to be more consistent. Bureaucrats have a legal framework to work with in the form of EU laws, regulations and trade agreements; and using them as a normative power (one that has the ability to enforce standards and norms on its member states and entities with which it has formal relations) is pretty much in line with what Europe always does. Again, this is very different from the U.S., where it is all about politics and diplomacy.

Last summer I was skeptical about Europe’s ability to influence the political dynamic in Israel, but I am less so today. The EU cannot and does not want to replace the U.S. as a mediator, but through its own normative power it is able to dramatically change the dynamic on the ground. As Daniel Levi from the European Council on Foreign Relations put it during one of the panels, the EU could become the “accidental game changer.”

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)

A couple of speakers drew special attention during the event. The first one was Uri Bank, Secretary-General of the national-religious Jewish Home political party, who made the most hardline remarks I heard from any Israeli politician in such a forum, even settlers.

Bank opened by saying that he represents the Israeli mainstream, then went on to openly rejecting the two-state solution. He explained that there is a consensus in the Israeli right regarding the need to annex Area C of the West Bank (under Israeli civil and military control), and the debate is between those advocating the annexation of Areas A (under full control by the Palestinian Authority) and B (under Israeli military control, but where the PA is in charge of civil matters), to those who believe in full annexation. The latter camp is the right-wing’s version of the one-state solution while the former – Bank included – think that Palestinians should be allowed to vote to the Jordanian Parliament yet remain under Israeli control (Bank is active in the Israeli Initiative, which advocates this radical version of the “Jordanian option”). I later probed Bank on his ideas, and he admitted that Palestinians will have fewer rights than Israelis in the unified territory.

Bank also called for the EU to stop financing UNRWA (the UN agency in charge of Palestinian refugees) as well as for the organization’s dismantling, stating that Israel is singled out by the world and is treated with “double standards.” He denied the existence of the occupation, citing the Israeli reading of international law, according to which the West Bank was “unclaimed territory.” Regarding the aforementioned EU measures, he mentioned that 24,000 Palestinians work in Israeli factories or settlements in the West Bank, and that “they will be the first to be hurt.”

Bank’s ideas were so far out there that they became the center of the debate (which was supposed to be about the EU’s role in the diplomatic process). Several people explained that his line of thinking necessitates a total reinterpretation of the essence of international law, not to mention the rights of minorities, definitions of citizenship, etc. Not only did the European officials present disagree with him, they believed that accepting his view would mean giving up on the current platform for analyzing international relations.

I found the response by Leila Shahid, the Palestinian Ambassador to the EU, Belgium and Luxembourg, to be the most perceptive. Shahid called Bank’s remarks “a combination of naivety and chutzpa,” capturing something very profound about Israeli society today. There is a kind of cocooning which has taken over this country, especially its right-wing elite. This is what allows such bizarre ideas to flourish; as if people can live in one country, yet have their elected officials live in a different one, without the ability to influence the lives of their constituency. The Israeli government’s arrogance is not the only problem here; it is indeed incredibly naïve to believe that this kind of thinking could actually work, or that it would not bring about a disaster on Israelis themselves.


Another interesting appearance was by Robert Wexler, the President of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace and a former seven-term Democratic member of the U.S. House of Representatives. He also served as an advisor on Middle East and Israel issues to President Barack Obama during his 2008 presidential campaign.

Wexler went straight to the heart of the Kerry peace process, explaining the American position on two core issues: the settlements and the recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. Regarding the latter, he explained that “Netanyahu made it into the fifth core issue of the conflict, next to refugees, Jerusalem, security and borders… The U.S. actually views the Jewish state demand as his most modest request, and not as a new concept.”

He criticized the Europeans for their measures against all the settlements, claiming that they should be divided into two categories: settlements that prevent the two state-solution and settlements that do not (adding that the latter should not even be referred to as settlements). Wexler specifically mentioned the Jewish neighborhoods of East Jerusalem (and possibly beyond – this part wasn’t clear), which “Israelis see as suburbs of Jerusalem.”

Treating the two groups of settlements equally, Wexler said, will only prolong “what you refer to as occupation.” Finally, he stated that he “simply cannot understand” how measures against settlements are even debated “while Netanyahu agrees to talk to the Palestinians.”

I had heard that Wexler was fairly informed on the Kerry process, and his appearance at the event only strengthened that notion. With that in mind, he confirmed the suspicion that the Americans are moving away from the Clinton parameters and in the Israeli direction – by doing so, they are rewarding Israeli governments for their insistence on creating “facts on the ground.”

Wexler insisted on the urgent need to reach a two-state solution. However, there was something in his appearance that reminded me of Bank, who completely rejected the two-state solution. In their own way, each of them sees the solution to the Palestinian problem–I don’t write “occupation,” since both rejected the term–as something that needs to be determined by the Israeli consensus, while ignoring the will of Palestinians or international law.

Wexler’s remarks made me even more pessimistic regarding the Kerry process. He praised American involvement, claiming that President Obama was the only leader in the world (!) that has invested political capital in this issue. However, I also heard from several Europeans that his remarks actually demonstrated America’ shortcomings vis-a-vis the issue, and the inherent problem of having Washington serve as an neutral negotiator.

There was also something in the tone of his language – and the complete indifference to the internal Palestinian dynamic – which made me realize, once more, that America’s bias toward Jerusalem and against the Palestinians is not only due to the influence of the pro-Israel lobby or the role of Jewish elites. It is almost inherent to the general American culture and consensus. But this is something for a separate post.

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