Tuesday

23rd Apr 2019

Opinion

Can the EU play a role in taming Israeli-Palestinian violence?

Today, the EU's high representative, Federica Mogherini, will add her weight to international efforts to contain and ultimately de-escalate the latest wave of Israeli-Palestinian violence when she welcomes Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas to Brussels.

At the top of her agenda will be to explore concrete steps that can be taken by all sides to calm tensions on the ground and hopefully reinject some confidence in the health of the moribund two-state solution.

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  • Mogherini to host Abbas in Brussels on Monday (Photo: European Parliament - Audiovisual Unit)

For Mogherini, this will be an opportunity to position Europe as an increasingly indispensable player in efforts to solve the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict by portraying EU institutions as working in tandem with US secretary John Kerry, who has been holding his own set of talks with regional leaders.

It comes at a time in which the EU and its member states have shown increasing signs of diplomatic activism designed to unlock Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, whether through the United Nations Security Council, in the form of European parliamentary support for Palestinian recognition, or efforts to exclude Israeli settlements from EU-Israel bilateral agreements.

Despite the inherent potential in this kind of European diplomacy and the considerable expectations built over the last year, 2015 has been a wasted opportunity to fill the diplomatic vacuum left by US disengagement following the collapse of Kerry's peace-making efforts in April 2014.

EU leaders have been unable to clearly articulate their own vision for solving the conflict or what an effective "outrider" role to the US could look like in practice.

Nor has Europe been able to deliver on more short term "technical" fixes in the wake of last summer's destructive war in Gaza. As the current surge in Israeli-Palestinian violence shows, the EU's ability to babysit the conflict in the US' absence has been far from glowing.

What is happening on the ground in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories has numerous drivers, and it would of course be unfair to lay the blame for all of those at Brussels' doorstep. Yet is clear that European inaction combined with a loss of Palestinian faith in negotiations, humanitarian stagnation in Gaza, dwindling Palestinian democracy, and a divided and unpopular Palestinian leadership have been substantial factors.

These are all issues in which the EU has an important role to play, yet has constantly punched below its weight.

Although the EU has spent considerable time and effort over the past year discussing potential formats for reviving negotiations, there has been no honest assessment of why it failed in the past and what it could do to address these failures.

Debate on whether to opt for an expanded Quartet, the UN group handling the conflict, as Mogherini has urged, or follow the French lead in creating an International Support Group has further compounded internal European divisions and detracted from the more important question of what either is supposed to achieve substantively.

Gaza

But it is undoubtedly the issue of Gaza that has witnessed one of the EU's greatest abdications of responsibility, despite pledges of support after each round of devastation. Following last summer's fighting there, the EU and its member states once again pledged considerable technical and financial assistance to rebuild the Strip.

Yet over one year later, European states have only contributed approximately €127 million of the €315 million promised in development aid. EU assistance in developing a mechanism able to relieve Israel's stranglehold and provide much-needed economic development over the Strip has also not materialised.

Of course, nothing much can really be achieved on the technical side in Gaza without addressing the political issue of Palestinian reconciliation. Here, too, the EU by virtue of being the biggest donor to the Palestinians does have leverage.

But domestic political considerations and its policy of "no-contact" with Hamas have consistently hampered the EU's ability to play an effective mediating role. As a result, the EU has been forced to rely on Norway and Switzerland. If the EU is serious about identifying mechanism able to restore Palestinian stability, then focusing on the above would be a useful start.

As it is though, addressing Palestinian allegations that Israel has been seeking to undermine the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al Sharif provides another opportunity for short-term technical fixes.

Much like the Palestinian violence which shook East Jerusalem last year, there is of course the possibility that this current wave may ebb too, but if it does it will likely have more to do with the nature of the violence rather than the effectiveness of international action.

Absent serious attempts to tackle the ensemble of drivers behind Palestinian violence and the context in which these are occurring – namely an Israeli occupation that will soon be entering its fiftieth year and a settlement project that shows every sign of permanence – a return to calm will only be temporary.

Reboot

At this point it is still unclear whether the US may try to use some of the momentum that might be achieved in de-conflicting both sides in order to pivot into a renewed peace process. But re-booting the "process" within this context is more likely to lead to further Israeli entrenchment rather than achieve lasting peace.

Worse still, the collapse of yet another round of negotiations could, as in the past, be the harbinger of still higher levels of violence and instability. Resolving the conflict will therefore take more than just getting Abbas and Netanyahu in the same room. It will involve addressing the factors that are most responsible for undermining the prospects for a two-state outcome.

In December 2013, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) conducted its "Two State Stress Test" which showed how, along with the expansion of settlements and the physical entrenchment of the occupation, the other single factor most undermining the birth of a Palestinian state living peacefully alongside Israel was the dynamics of the Israeli debate where a majority is unwilling to move away from the status quo, either out of ideology or for lack of any sense of urgency.

The physical reality of the occupation can be reversed. After all, Israel would not be the first country to de-occupy and actually thrive after that: take for instance Portugal’s de-occupation of its colonies in the mid-1970s (with the absorption of hundreds of thousands of settlers in the economy of the mainland) and its subsequent economic development thanks to increasing integration with the EU.

What impedes de-occupation is not merely “facts on the ground” but rather the political calculations that stand behind it. Ultimately, an occupation can end peacefully only if the occupier decides it is in its long-term interests to do so.

Israeli opinion

European efforts must therefore be geared towards changing Israeli public opinion.

While there is no European consensus on deploying leverage vis- à-vis Israel, the exception to this rule lies at the intersection where Europe’s commitment to its own legal stipulations bumps up against Israeli political insistence on blurring any distinction between its own recognized sovereign territory and its settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.

By fully implementing its own legislation which commits it to differentiate between the settlements and Israel, Europe can produce positive political effects by gradually changing the calculations of the Israeli public that underpin the status quo.

Doing this is a legal necessity which should not be held hostage to attempts at resuming the peace process but rather seen as a decisive factor in leading to the conditions necessary for a meaningful resumption.

Mattia Toaldo and Hugh Lovatt work on Israel and Palestine for the ECFR, a London-based think tank

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