Friday

18th Jan 2019

Opinion

Europe must lead the way on Arab-Israeli conflict

  • Knesset: Burg said Israeli politicians too quickly accuse critics of anti-Semitism (Photo: Tzipi Livni)

Everything considered, Europe is still the most important global player in the Middle East.

The US has armed forces and capacities. Russia and China have overt and covert interests, but Europe is the real player.

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Despite the criticism and the slowness, awkwardness and contradictory interests of its member states, it is still the only player truly changing and affecting the Middle East.

No wonder then that most of the region’s peace initiatives have been linked to Europe, from Rhodes in 1949, via Madrid, to Oslo and the Geneva accord in 2003.

The US is needed to close the deal, but without Europe nothing can be started. That is why, while all shallow glances are directed at US secretary of state John Kerry, well-informed observers instead look to Europe.

The introduction of the recent European guidelines, which distinguish legitimate Israel in its internationally recognised borders (the Green Line) from its expansionist satellite settlements built after 1967, constitute a wise, just and balanced decision.

They exclude Israeli activities in the territories occupied by Israel since June 1967 from EU grants, prizes and loans.

The first test of these guidelines’ implementation will be the ongoing negotiations between the European Union and Israel on Israel’s participation in Horizon 2020, the EU's research programme for the next seven years.

Israel will need to agree to the implementation of Horizon 2020 in accordance with these guidelines, something Israeli officials have repeatedly said it would not do.

It is important that EU foreign ministers, when they meet informally (at the "Gymnich") on 6 September in Vilnius do not send a signal the EU will back-track from these important rules.

Over the years, we Israelis have fallen in love with a reality that enables us to have occupation without paying the price for it.

Numerous Israeli governments fell blindly into their own traps and actually believed the hollow and senseless rhetoric that labels anyone not in support of the settlement policy as anti-Israeli, and anyone who is anti-Israeli as anti-Semitic, a way of delegitimising legitimate criticism.

Then along came the Europeans and said: "Sorry, but we beg to differ. Israel is a legitimate state, but some of its actions are blatantly illegitimate and illegal. Therefore, both by the force of our values and out of sincere concern for Israel’s future, its well-being and security, we reject this distorted and dangerous reasoning of the Israeli right-wing that Israel equals Greater Israel, and we make this distinction: Israel, Yes. Settlements, No."

It should be noted, Europe has been very consistent and has never recognised the "facts on the ground' of Israel's occupation.

For Europe, the borders as they were prior to the 1967 occupation are a legal principle and political reference point that has never been blurred.

No change of government in any member state, from conservative to socialist and vice versa, has ever changed this basic fact.

Meanwhile, Israel misinterpreted the world’s slow reaction to its illegal facts on the ground.

It did not read the writing on the wall.

With its arrogance vis-a-vis the outside world and its embarrassing political acquiescence toward its own public opinion, toward the settlers, it has ignored all warnings, even those sounded by its friends and supporters.

Now, as it is increasingly forced to pay the price for so many years of ignorance, it sings again the only tune it knows: "They are anti-Semites."

Contrary to what many in Israel believe, political Europe is neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Israeli.

It is simply … European.

Beyond internal controversy, conflicting interests and the private history of each of its member states regarding the Middle East, Europe is busy establishing itself and its environment, with its traditional thoroughness.

It faces real threats and is committed to promoting the common values of self-determination, democracy, human and civil rights, tolerance, multi-culturalism and the negation of colonialism and discrimination.

These values are vital to its own existence.

This is realpolitik at its best.

Not the US, but Europe is the player positioned at the frontline, in constant friction with the realities of the countries around it.

In this sense the Middle East conflict, with all its political and religious dimensions, is not distant foreign policy for Europe. Often, it entails burning internal issues.

The new European guidelines and their implementation will not traumatise or hurt Israel.

Our government will not fall, crowds will not flood the streets, Israelis will not cease to do business or spend their holidays in their beloved, nearby, Europe.

On the contrary, the clear distinction between Israel and the land it occupies or has partly annexed will do us good. This is the unavoidable and necessary prologue to evacuating the settlements themselves.

That time will also come and it will be much easier and more acceptable than people tend to imagine.

On this occasion, as Europe takes steps to implement its values, we should look ahead and think of the next milestone: June 2017 will mark 50 years since the 1967 War, the beginning of Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Occupation must, by definition, be temporary.

History has never known a temporary situation that lasts five decades and which is evil and violent.

Europe must now have the courage and vision to guide the international community in its efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Europe must implement its laws and principles and bring temporariness to an end.

The writer was the speaker of the Knesset from 1999 to 2003 and is a former chairman of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organisation

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