The moment of truth for EU policy on Israel-Palestine

Whether European states follow through on their threats and warnings over the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar will determine a great deal about the EU’s relevance and its ability to influence Israeli policy vis-a-vis the Palestinians.

Palestinian, foreign, and Israeli activists try to block an Israeli bulldozer preparing for the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar, July 4, 2018. (Oren Ziv/
Palestinian, foreign, and Israeli activists try to block an Israeli bulldozer preparing for the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar, July 4, 2018. (Oren Ziv/

European powers are going to have to make a crucial choice in the coming week. Two months after five EU states reportedly warned Israel that the demolition and forced displacement of Khan al-Ahmar would “trigger a reaction” from its allies, the Israeli Supreme Court on Wednesday gave its final stamp of approval for the demolition to go ahead.

Along with the southern West Bank hamlet of Susya, the EU has touted Khan al-Ahmar as one of a few, seemingly arbitrary red lines in Israel’s decades-long policy of demolishing Palestinian homes and expanding its settlement enterprise in the occupied territory (for an explanation why, read Edo Konrad’s interview with Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann). Diplomats arrive in convoys whenever the small, dilapidated villages in ‘Area C’ are on the verge of being destroyed. Statements of condemnation, and occasional warnings, are fired into the ether.

Up until now, that approach has partially worked. But things have changed in the past two years, the biggest difference being that the current White House – whose Middle East policy is being led by unabashedly right-wing and pro-settler figures like Jared Kushner and David Friedman – is no longer concerned with what Israel does to the Palestinians. And if it does care, it is unwilling to even mutter an indication of disapproval.

This means that the European powers, to put it bluntly, will have to decide whether to put up or shut up about their commitments to Khan al-Ahmar. Even if they were to act, they are unlikely to do so as a united bloc due to Israel’s budding friendships with far-right EU governments, who hold effective veto power in the EU’s consensus-based system of foreign policy. Governments would therefore have to step in individually.

Considering how few issues the international community is willing to take a stand on vis-à-vis Israel, and considering that EU leaders took it upon themselves to draw a semi-coherent red line with Khan al-Ahmar, the responses of Germany, France, the UK, Spain, and Italy will be crucial in determining the fate of international engagement on the Palestinian issue.

With the United States no longer interested in applying even nominal pressure on Israel, the European powers, who hold significant economic leverage, will need to prove whether their warnings were actually serious threats or empty words. If they do not react with some sort of sanctions or punitive measures, they will have lost whatever is left of their deterrence in halting the Israeli government’s relentless campaign to make the (EU-backed) two-state solution an obsolete idea.

But such punishments are unlikely to be imposed. Diplomatic threats are hardly ever made with the intention of following through; that is why the consequences are never detailed or hinted at. Israel has long believed that to be the case, and now it gets to test the boundaries of its impunity even further — something it has been doing more and more daringly in recent years.

The result is that the current Israeli government, and the governments that follow, will be emboldened to become even more belligerent in rewriting the rules that govern its behavior: in this case, the rules regulating how quickly it can advance its piecemeal, quiet annexation of Palestine in the coming years.