Tuesday

25th Sep 2018

Opinion

Europe - the missing key to Middle East peace

  • War damage in Gaza after Israel's assault in 2009 (Photo: zoriah)

The latest American Middle East peace initiative has been launched in the absence of change in the attitudes of the protagonists or in the political landscape. Is America gambling with a new round of dead-end diplomacy by packaging old wine in new bottles?

The United States urgently needs Europe if it wants to break the deadlocked peace negotiations and Europe needs to take additional responsibility for resolving the conflict. Indeed, Israel may also need to reassess Europe's relevance for its future.

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The problem is that the White House has been working with the wrong assumption. The current deadlock does not stem from a dispute over the order of topics to negotiate, for example the place of a settlement freeze in relation to other controversial subjects. Rather, it lies in the predisposition of the stakeholders in the conflict: America has too close a relationship to Israel to be able to twist its partner's arm to take a risk for peace. Israel is too comfortable with the occupation and the Palestinians are divided. Moreover, Arab rulers do not convey credibility.

Strong international pressure is needed to break the deadlock. But Washington alone is losing political muscle. Close co-ordination between the United States and Europe could both strengthen the power of mediation and provide international security to enforce a peace agreement.

To better understand Europe's credentials for peace promotion, consider some historical facts: Europe played a major role in the formation of the state of Israel. The British government authorised the "Homeland for the Jews." The apocalyptic tragedy of the Holocaust, a central factor that in the promotion of a Jewish state, was a Nazi German undertaking. Indeed, Jews who fled from Europe formed the essential backbone of the early state of Israel. And the first peace mission to the region after the 1967 occupation was undertaken by a European - Gunnar Jarring, the Swedish envoy to the United Nations.

Over the years, Europe's role as a mediator receded, giving way to an expanding US role in the region. But in more recent decades, European states have achieved excellence in policing peace in many places: in the Middle East, the Balkans, West Africa and elsewhere. Given the opportunity, Europe could provide the Israelis and Palestinians with the necessary international security that is crucial for enforcing a two-state solution.

This international security is necessary, as most Palestinians strongly feel that a future Palestine would require a national army (albeit, possibly a symbolic one). Palestinian skies and borders must be free. But Israel considers an armed, independent Palestinian state, including armed movements such as Hamas within it, a threat to its current and future security.

Stationing international forces of peace on the borders of Israel and an envisioned Palestine state, backed by Europe would simultaneously give Palestinians the independence they need and Israel the security it yearns for.

Despite its limitations, a peace-keeping model is already on the ground in the region in the shape of Unifil, the UN force in southern Lebanon, which largely consists of and has been led by European states. This force could be modified, strengthened and broadened to cover the West Bank, Gaza, and possibly the Syrian Golan borders. Currently, the EU itself has a police mission along the border with Egypt, and despite its observer status, it could further contribute through an expansion to the 1967 borders. Indeed, Palestinians are more likely to be tolerant of a European force, bearing in mind Europe's perceived balance in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Europe, or rather, the EU can further contribute to a future agreement by offering, as an incentive to Israel and future Palestine, a "special status," similar to the EU's recent offer to Morocco. Also, Europe is urging the two factions of Cyprus to make peace in order to qualify as a united country for EU membership. Why not link the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict to the prospects of securing Israel and establishing a viable Palestinian state within a protective, suitable regional framework? If Cyprus is a candidate for the EU why not Israel and Palestine?

The long-term future of Israel could depend more on Europe than on the United States. Hopefully, one day, should Israel decide to withdraw from the 1967 territories, it might discover that Europe could be its bridge to the Arab world.

The writer is a former Middle East representative at the Geneva-based World Council of Churches for the Common Ground News Service (CG News) in Jerusalem

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