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.

Will Europe take a leading role on Israel/Palestine?
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.

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Former senior EU officials: ‘Oslo process has nothing more to offer’