Sunday

23rd Feb 2020

Opinion

Israel and Palestine: Recognising the need for difficult compromises

  • Fringe groups sought a last-minute filibuster, while some MEPs tried to rewrite the text (Photo: europarl.europa.eu)

The idea of using recognition of Palestine to stimulate the Middle East peace process comes from genuinely grassroots politics.

The Palestinians themselves didn’t employ this tactic in their diplomacy for a long time, knowing that each novel operation in the bitter conflict with Israel risks making matters worse as well as better.

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But the failure of US secretary of state John Kerry to keep peace talks going, another war in Gaza, and spiraling violence on both sides tilted the argument in Palestinian eyes.

For its part, Israel remains suspicious of Palestinian motives, fearing that recognition might be used to avoid difficult compromises.

Pro-Israeli voices say the recognition campaign is an alternative to peace talks.

In this context, the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) one month ago decided the European Parliament can play a positive role.

But our draft motion on Palestine recognition was met by division in almost all political groups.

It also saw a plenary debate which reflected our internal disputes instead of helping to solve those of others.

Inter-party disagreements

High representative Federica Mogherini made an impressive show of commitment for Europe to be more useful in Middle East conflict resolution.

But despite her intervention, inter-party disagreements delayed the vote for a month and I was given the task of trying to bridge the differences.

My own S&D group wanted recognition to be unconditional, while Liberal colleagues were willing to “note”, but not to “support” pro-recognition votes in some member states’ parliaments. The centre-right EPP was insistent that recognition could only come as an outcome of talks, hence with Israeli agreement

As always on the Middle East, German history and past actions in some eastern European countries saw certain capitals tie the hands of their EU parliament delegations.

Emotions ran high - I was openly baited by an opposition colleague at one meeting and found myself having to calm shouting matches on several occasions.

Fringe groups sought a last-minute filibuster, while some MEPs tried to rewrite the text, but we managed to get a deal which stuck.

It didn't just stick: The joint resolution was passed by a massive 498 votes in favour and just 88 against.

One news agency wrongly reported the European Parliament had stepped back from a proposal for recognition.

They said it even though title of the resolution and the first paragraph clearly refer to recognition of Palestinian statehood and use the word “support”.

The use of the phrase "in principle," which translates poorly in French, was applied to recognition.

But all sides know the formal competence for recognition lies with member states, not with EU institutions, so any vote is perforce one of principle rather than a legal decision.

Other wording said peace talks should go "hand-in-hand" - i.e. simultaneously and in parallel to - the recognition process. Not that recognition is conditional on the talks.

First common position on recognition

But the real value of this vote is not to be found by reading the smallprint of the text. It is in understanding its political meaning.

For the first time, there is a call for an EU common position on recognition.

Six national parliaments recently invited their governments to recognise Palestine. The EU-level vote is an instrument for prompting the same debate in other member states.

Our motion provides full-throated support for Mogherini to play a bigger role in the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The big majority also sends a message to EU foreign ministers to do more, including on efforts at the UN to set a global deadline, not just for Palestine recognition, but for the birth of a genuine Palestinian state.

On the Israeli side, many of us hope that EU pressure will lead to more concessions in the interest of peace and a more constructive narrative in the upcoming Israeli elections.

On the Palestinian side, there are similar hopes - that the EU parliament vote can empower people who advocate peace.

We’re trying to keep alive the prospect of a two-state solution, which too many have started to doubt.

Meanwhile, the fact we managed to find accord on such a sensitive topic bodes well for our aspirations for a more robust EU foreign policy.

When we urge Israelis and Palestinians to make difficult compromises, at least parliament showed we can make them ourselves.

Richard Howitt is a British S&D deputy who tabled the Palestine resolution and who chaired inter-group talks on a compromise text

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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