30 years Oslo Accords: is the EU still concerned ?

Mouin Rabbani

Mondoweiss  /  October 5, 2023

The 30 years since the Oslo Accords has shown Palestinians that Europe will not serve as a counterweight to the U.S., but rather as a pillar in their dispossession.

Editor’s Note: The following remarks were drafted in Brussels last month to assess the European Union’s role in the Question of Palestine three decades after the 1993 Oslo Accords. 

I came to Brussels from the Armenian capital, Yerevan. 

I arrived in Yerevan the day Azerbaijani forces launched their final assault on Nagorno-Karabakh.

As a Palestinian, I was deeply moved by the horrific images of an entire society being uprooted, dispossessed, and ethnically cleansed virtually overnight. I was no less impressed that, as in Palestine in 1948, this catastrophe was made possible by rare consensus among rival great powers – Washington, Moscow, and Europe. Each, for its own reasons, found it expedient to sacrifice an entire society in furtherance of its strategic interests. This of course did not stop European and European Union officials from expressing concern and even condemnation, after the fact, about the entirely predictable results of their policies. Or from touting the majesty of European values without a hint of irony. Words, as they say, come cheap. 

And nowhere do they come cheaper than in relation to Palestine.

Recently Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas made a number of statements about the Jews of Europe and the holocaust that drew a more genuine European outrage. It is of course only appropriate that historical falsification be condemned and disavowed. But why should I take European condemnations of Abbas seriously, when Benjamin Netanyahu’s assertion that the holocaust was inspired not by Adolf Hitler but rather the Mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husseini, was passed over in virtual silence? Or when the European Union’s most senior official, Ursula von der Leyen, waxes positively orgasmic in her message to Israel on its 75th year. Israel, she opined, is “a vibrant democracy in the heart of the Middle East”, which – in her words and expressing the ultimate insult, “literally made the desert bloom.” A land without a people for a people without a land lives on. I for one don’t take issue with her celebration of what she termed Europe and Israel’s “shared culture and values”. These have after all been on full display in Baku during the past year.

The question before us is whether, and how, Europe can play a constructive role in achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace. Two anecdotes:

During the 1990s I was friendly with a Dutch diplomat who had been seconded to Brussels. Her efforts to promote the proper labeling of settlement products, in both The Netherlands and Brussels, was fought tooth and nail at every turn. Not by Israeli pressure groups, but rather by her own colleagues and superiors. It is a debate that has been raging for decades. With a comprehensive ban of settlement products from the European market, which is the only meaningful measure in this regard, not even on the agenda, why should we take Europe seriously?

Several years later I attended a dinner at the Dutch embassy in Amman for the visiting members of the Dutch parliamentary foreign affairs committee. Its chairman explained that they would have no contact with Hamas on the grounds that it rejects the existence of the other party. (As it happened, and at their request, I arranged for some of his less doctrinaire colleagues to meet with the Hamas leadership in Damascus during the next leg of their tour). 

When I asked him if the same criteria applied to Avigdor Lieberman, at the time a rising star in Israeli politics, he offered only that, unlike Hamas, Lieberman was not part of the Israeli government. Yet when Lieberman did become a government minister, he was a valued partner for European governments. I happened to be in Cyprus last month when its foreign minister welcomed Itamar Ben-Gvir. I have no doubt it is only a matter of time before Ben-Gvir and Smotrich are also normalized in and by Europe. Again, measured against the Quartet conditions that have acquired the status of Holy writ, why should we take you seriously? 

After all, your engagement appears to be primarily focused on Palestinian textbooks and the criminalization of Palestinian advocacy with obscenely distorted definitions of anti-Semitism. Israeli textbooks and Israel’s institutionalized racism? Nothing to see here.

European officials and diplomats often speak about their support of the Palestinian Authority and its institutions as proof of their seriousness and commitment. But to what? Ask virtually any Palestinian and they will tell you that the PA serves your interests, and Israel’s interests, not theirs. In other words, you do us no favors by propping up Abbas, now in the 18th year of his four-year term. 

Unlike some of my colleagues I have no objection in principle to either a two-state settlement or Europe’s continued endorsement of it. It does after all represent the international consensus and forms a rare point of agreement among the EU’s increasingly fractious membership. 

But surely you have asked yourselves whether thirty years of Oslo has moved you closer to or further away from this objective. Given the obvious answer to this question, is it not time for a different approach, in which you focus not on breathing yet more life into a rotten process, but rather confront policies that are placing the international consensus increasingly out of reach? A good place to start would be for Europe to respect those commitments it has already freely undertaken upon itself, such as in its Association Agreement with Israel. Or addressing your role in transforming the Gaza Strip into what former UK Prime Minster David Cameron called a “giant open-air prison”. Or ending your campaign to prevent the Palestinians from seeking rulings from international legal institutions like the International Court of Justice and International Criminal Court. But I for one am not holding my breath. 

In conclusion, I’m not going to draw comparisons with European policies towards the conflict in Ukraine, because I wasn’t born yesterday. My impression is that European capitals have concluded there are more urgent crises next door and in the Middle East that require their focus. By comparison the Question of Palestine is now in its eighth decade. Seen from Europe the sky has yet to fall in, and it can safely remain on the backburner.

This in my view places a responsibility on Palestinians to change the nature of their engagement with Europe. To no longer deal with Europe as a potential counterweight to the United States, but rather as a sturdy pillar in the architecture of Palestinian dispossession. The onus is therefore on us to no longer take you seriously, and to focus once again on our struggle with Israel, and the cultivation of reliable allies, until our disruption of business as usual compels you to demonstrate seriousness of purpose. Let the mountain, as they say, come to Muhammad.

Mouin Rabbani is Co-Editor of Jadaliyya and host of its Connections podcast, and Non-Resident Fellow at the Center for Conflict and Humanitarian Studies