By Simon Petermann
Since the Obama administration has abandoned the idea of getting a freeze on Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, everyone agrees that the peace process in the Middle East is once again deadlocked. Of course, this is not the first time. But the changing strategic landscape in the Middle East, instability in the countries neighboring Israel and the aggrandizement of Iranian power all heighten the risks in a region that is increasingly a geostrategic black hole.
The absence of a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will continue to destabilize the region. The Middle East remains fertile ground for the radicalization of large segments of Muslim societies across the world, fuelled by social disruptions and preyed upon by reinvigorated religious fundamentalists and extremist groups that preach messianic ideologies.
The recent resolve of the Obama administration to obtain some results within a reasonable time was a call to countries that can contribute positively to the resolution of the conflict. And this call was addressed primarily to the Europeans. Indeed, what happens in the Middle East fundamentally affects European interests. Europe has been involved for a long time and has no choice but to remain so. The future of the Middle East is not some distant strategic concern, but rather a neighborhood issue.
Many European leaders have been saying for years that the European Union is not just a payer but a full player in diplomatic, economic and security affairs. But the problem is that European diplomacy in the region is more declamatory than effective and is almost always dependant on American initiatives. EU plans concerning the future of the region avoid sensitive issues in order to avoid criticism, primarily from the Israelis. When it comes to adopting a firm position toward Israel, one likely to revive peace negotiations with the Palestinians, the EU never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity —according to the formula devised more than 40 years ago by Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban to describe Palestinian diplomatic behavior.
Three days after Obama’s announcement, 26 former European officials, led by Chris Patten and Hubert Vedrine, sent a letter to the president of the European Council in which they reminded Israel of its obligations under international law and recalled EU responsibilities deriving from Europe’s close ties with Israel and the Palestinians. They suggested linking the development of agreements between the EU and Israel to the freeze on settlement-construction in the West Bank.
Some European political leaders expressed support for these proposals. But far from following this invitation to display firmness, the EU Council of Foreign Ministers, divided as usual, settled for a timid approach. It rejected any form of pressure on Israel and reiterated its willingness to recognize a Palestinian state “when it is appropriate”. The 27 also insisted they would not recognize any changes to the 1967 borders “other than those negotiated by both parties”.
This position obviously contrasts with that adopted by Latin American countries like Brazil, Argentina and Venezuela, which recently recognized unilaterally a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders. It is, however, identical to that adopted by Washington, which has abandoned the idea of getting a settlement-construction freeze and has resumed indirect negotiations.
Unfortunately, we cannot expect more from the EU. Its decisions are taken on the basis of intergovernmental cooperation and require a consensus among the 27 member states. In some cases, this consensus can be obtained easily. For instance, in the recent past the Palestinian paramilitary groups Islamic Jihad, Hamas and al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades were placed on the EU list of terrorist organizations due to the political use of violence. The EU has also instituted a process of reassessment of its relations with the Palestinian Authority, which it has heavily subsidized for years and which is highly dysfunctional in many of its institutions and procedures, and has insisted on more effective and accountable governance in view of the potential misuse of funds. In order to help the PA strengthen the rule of law, two civilian missions are on the ground: EUPOL COPPS, which is operational in Ramallah, and EUBAM, which is on stand-by for Gaza.
On the Israeli side, the EU has repeatedly stated that the settlements in the West Bank are major obstacles to peace, but it has also turned a blind eye to the import of goods produced in the settlements. Only recently has the EU finally become more assertive and begun to apply “rules of origin” to these goods, which exclude them from preferential tariffs under the trade pact with Israel.
More and more people in Europe are advocating economic sanctions against Israel to compel it to comply with international legality. These requests usually come from the European Parliament but generate a limited response within the EU. In fact, if such a decision should be taken, it would mean self-inflicted punishment because the EU has a large bilateral trade surplus with Israel: while EU imports from Israel are at €8.8 billion, EU exports to Israel totaled €11.4 billion in 2009. If the EU restricted Israeli exports, Israel would surely retaliate and limit imports from Europe and the entire exercise would be counter-productive.
Moreover, politically such a move toward trade sanctions would require a consensus among the 27, an objective currently clearly out of reach, as Germany, the Netherlands and some other member states are adamantly opposed to such pressure on Israel. And even if we assume that this opposition could be overcome, it would be detrimental to the EU’s political credibility to use economic sanctions. Indeed, by using economic leverage on Israel, the EU would ipso facto lose its status of legitimate interlocutor.
At the end of the day, can the EU do more than express fine words that are in any case subject to criticism? It needs to be more active in three areas: framing the negotiations, peace-keeping and long-term solutions.
A lasting peace cannot come about without a return to serious direct bilateral negotiations. All constructive initiatives (including unofficial agreements), proposals and ideas should get full EU support. The EU should also signal its readiness to assume the role of peace-keeper — an issue that could arise if, for instance, an agreement among the Palestinians is reached in the Gaza Strip. With a clear mandate and the cooperation of the parties, a peace-keeping force would have a positive impact. Finally, the EU should play a greater role in final status issues by suggesting creative solutions.
As in the Balkans, the EU can play a constructive role in the Middle East. It should not pretend to be the equal of the US as a global power, but it can play a complementary role that could, in the long run, prove beneficial to both Palestinians and Israelis.
Simon Petermann is honorary professor at the University of Liege and the Free University of Brussels. He is a former political adviser of EUBAM. This commentary is published by Daily News Egypt in collaboration with bitterlemons-international.org.