Thursday

20th Feb 2020

Analysis

EU urged to tackle 'psychology' of Arab-Israeli conflict

  • Israeli soldier next to anti-Palestinian signs in Hebron, a flashpoint location in the Israeli-occupied West Bank (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

It's a good time for France and the EU to restart the Arab-Israeli peace process, a leading US expert says. But for Alon Ben-Meir they'll fail if they don't first change the "psychology" of the conflict.

The French foreign minister on Monday (14 March) in Brussels briefed EU colleagues on France’s new Arab-Israeli project.

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  • Israeli settlers' anti-Palestinian graffiti on Palestinian home in Hebron (Photo: Rosie Gabrielle)

Jean-Marc Ayrault told press that he will “explain” to his EU counterparts “the method that we propose - to create a political consensus for two states, Palestine and Israel.”

Amid the months-long spate of Palestinian knife and car-ramming attacks on Israelis, he said there was a “risk of escalation.”

He added that the initiative is designed to give Palestinian people “hope.”

The French idea is to start with an international conference in Paris in summer involving Arab states and UN powers.

Ayrault has tasked one of his top diplomats, Pierre Vimont, a former French ambassador to the US and a former EU foreign service secretary general, to prepare the event.

The project has high stakes.

If the Arab-Israeli conflict reignites it could prompt an exodus of Palestinian refugees to Europe. There is equal concern that lack of hope could see more Palestinians succumb to radicalisation by the jihadist group Islamic State.

The French initiative could also have an impact on domestic politics.

It comes ahead of a presidential election in 2017 in France, which is home to the biggest Jewish minority in Europe and one of its largest Arab minorities.

Ripe moment

For Ben-Meir, a scholar of Middle East affairs at New York University who has in the past advised senior Arab, Israeli, and US negotiators, the moment is ripe for EU intervention, but Ayrault’s “method” of starting with high-level politics is flawed.

Ben-Meir told EUobserver in a recent interview in Brussels that the US is happy for the EU to take the lead. He also said it's willing to endorse “some level of coercive [EU] diplomacy” on Israel.

He said US president Barack Obama doesn’t want to take the lead because he “hates [Israeli PM] Netanyahu with a passion.” He also said Obama’s Democratic Party sees the dossier as a “guaranteed failure” in terms of the US election timetable.

“The US wants the EU to put pressure on Israel. This is what my White House contacts tell me. They want the EU to do its dirty work,” Ben-Meir said.

He added that Arab states in the Gulf and in north Africa also want a deal with Israel in order to form a “crescent” of allies against their regional rival, Iran.

But he warned that if France moved too quickly then its project will fail like all the others in the past 20 years.

“You first need to change the mindset of both sides in the conflict,” he said.

“You need confidence building measures and human-to-human contacts. Instead of starting with issues on which no one agrees, such as borders or security, you should start with simple things that would make life better for everyone, like dredging sludge from the River Jordan.”

Two-year campaign

Ben-Meir detailed his ideas in a paper which he circulated to EU and French diplomats and to MEPs in the past two weeks.

His paper said that feelings of “fear, distrust, and insecurity” on both sides are so strong that Israelis and Palestinians need “at least two years” of “conciliatory people-to-people measures” before they restart direct talks.

It urged the EU to back measures such as creating a media ombudsman to combat hate speech, joint sporting events and joint art exhibitions. It also said Israel should free low-grade Palestinian prisoners and issue more building permits for Palestinian homes.

Ben-Meir’s paper advocated EU “tough love” against Palestinian and Israeli actions that harm relations.

It said the EU should stop Palestine from indicting Israel at the International Criminal Court because this would “enrage” Israelis.

It also said “the EU should make it absolutely clear that Israel must choose between the proliferation of settlements or normal relations with the EU.”

It listed potential EU sanctions such as blocking EU-based charites from funding settler groups, derecognising diplomas from settler schools, halting R&D cooperation with Israel, and suspending the EU-Israeli arms trade.

Making ‘monsters’

Ben-Meir’s paper also said the EU should insist that Palestinian and Israeli school textbooks “reflect a truer historical account.”

It noted that the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank publishes books in which “the state of Palestine covers what is currently Israel” and that Palestinian leaders denigrate the Holocaust.

The importance of educational reform is also being underlined by other academics.

Nurit Peled-Elhanan, a scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem who won the EU’s Sakharov Prize for human rights in 2001, said in Prague on Sunday that Israeli textbooks make “nice Jewish boys and girls” into “monsters when they put on the uniform at the age of 18” to do military service.

Speaking on the fringes of a human rights film festival, the One World festival in the Czech Republic, she said Israeli textbooks also say that Israel covers all of historical Palestine.

She said Israeli students never meet Palestinian students. Meanwhile, Israeli books teach “racist” stereotypes of Arabs and justify past Israeli "massacres" of Palestinians.

Distrust

Asked by EUobserver if the French initiative could work, Peled-Elhanan said: “It’s a joke. The maps in Israeli books show that Israel rejects international law and solutions.”

“It’s not just a question of Israeli society. It’s Israeli politicians who don’t care [about peace],” she said.

When EUobserver spoke to Paul Hirschson, who was at the time the Israeli foreign ministry spokesman, in Jerusalem in 2014 he also said the psychology of the conflict is a vital factor.

“If Israelis, deep down, thought that the Palestinians and the Arab world more broadly was ready to recogise that we’re here, that we’re here by right, not accident, and that we’re not going away, we’d have a reconciliation by now,” he said.

But for his part, Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian diplomat, showed the depth of bad will.

Asked by EUobserver in a recent interview to comment on Hirschson’s 2014 statement, Erekat said Arab leaders offered to recognise Israel in its 1967 borders in the so-called Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 but that Israel rejected their olive branch.

“This Israeli diplomat was either a liar or he had severe issues with looking at the facts,” Erekat said.

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