Riven with internal conflicts, the union has been reduced to the role of mediator between Israeli authorities and the Palestinian Authority.
The National / August 15, 2019
When Israeli authorities last week approved plans for more than 2,000 settlement housing units in the occupied West Bank, the European Union was quick to condemn the move.
“All settlement activity is illegal under international law and it erodes the viability of the two-state solution and the prospects for a lasting peace,” read the statement issued by the European External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic service.
It went on: “The EU expects the Israeli authorities to fully meet their obligations as an occupying power under international humanitarian law and to cease the policy of settlement construction and expansion, of designating land for exclusive Israeli use, and of denying Palestinian development.”
This might read as strongly-worded criticism but in fact, it is similar to dozens of expressions of concern issued by the EU over the years in response to events like Israeli settlement expansion or the demolition of Palestinian homes.
These pro forma press releases are perhaps symbolic of the EU’s approach to Israel and the Palestinians; while paying lip service to international law, Brussels’ policy is stuck in a rut – so much so that the EU has come to play a key role in maintaining the apartheid status quo.
In more recent times, the EU’s foreign policy in general – and its engagement with Israel and the Palestinians in particular – has been hobbled by significant internal developments, including Brexit, as well as growing divisions among member states that Israel has been keen to cultivate.
As a report earlier this year in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz put it: “[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu has been trying to exploit the growing ideological divide within the European Union to dismantle the union’s consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”
In forging ties with central and eastern European countries, Mr Netanyahu has exacerbated a long-standing problem for EU foreign policy, namely the need to secure sign-on from all member states.
But the flaws in the EU’s approach to Israel and the Palestinians predate these trajectories.
Brussels has invested deeply in the so-called Israeli-Palestinian peace process, whether in the form of diplomatic initiatives, donor support and training for the Palestinian Authority – and in particular its police force – as well as forging economic and research partnerships with Israel.
While on paper, all forms of engagement are intended to serve the goal of a two-state solution and respect for international law, in practice the EU has consistently ruled out practical measures to hold Israel to account for its routine and grave human rights violations – even those policies designed to thwart the very two-state framework the EU says it supports.
For a long time, even as Israel concentrated on creating its “facts on the ground” in occupied Palestinian territory, the EU insisted that its most valuable contribution was to help maintain “stability” and to “incentivise” the Israeli government and PA to pursue good faith negotiations.
As a senior EU official told me in 2016, the priority was to “re-establish some trust and confidence in the parties”, with the goal being “improving the situation on the ground, recreating a better environment for talks and then moving to meaningful talks on the final status issues”.
Three years on, nothing has changed. Last month, the EU reaffirmed to the UN Security Council the importance of direct negotiations, adding that it was “ready to work with the United States” and other partners “in carrying out economic projects, which will contribute to the two-state solution”.
Yet while EU policy has stayed consistent, the diplomatic and political context has very much moved on. The US-managed peace talks between Israel and the PA have never recovered since the 2014 collapse of negotiations and arguably never will – at least not in the same format.
Meanwhile, the Trump administration has been openly and unashamedly taking steps to help formalise the de facto single state that has long existed on the ground, in concert with an Israeli government which – regardless of next month’s election results – opposes Palestinian statehood.
With the collapse of the peace process and two-state framework itself, EU policy looks ever more outdated, leaving Brussels complicit in the colonial horror show taking place on a daily basis.
In recent times, the EU has been reduced to the role of mediator between Israeli and PA officials simply to “keep the PA from financial collapse”. As experts have noted: “It appears that, for the White House, Europe’s only acceptable role in Israel-Palestine is that of a funder.”
Will this be a role that the EU meekly accepts? Even taking into account the union’s internal dynamics and member-states’ woes, Brussels has plenty of significant, timely options to make a difference. At a bare minimum, that must include a refusal to go along with the Trump administration’s plan, and ideally should involve open opposition.
Earlier this year, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini was able to release a statement on behalf of all 28 union states in response to US recognition of Israel’s illegal annexation of the occupied Golan Heights. It is possible that were the US and Israel to act to advance annexation of West Bank territory, the EU would be galvanised into a similarly united stand.
But what is urgently needed, above all, is action not words – and the paramount question is whether policymakers and bureaucrats will break the habit of years of what passes for engagement and in particular, impose a price for Israel’s violations of international law.
Naivety, domestic political pressure and in some cases, an overtly anti-Palestinian agenda, have all shaped the EU’s carrot-and-no-stick approach.
Israel – and many European governments and private actors – have greatly benefited from economic, academic and military co-operation agreements with the EU, while experiencing little to nothing in the way of concrete pressure in response to occupation. It can no longer be business as usual.
Ben White is an author, journalist and analyst. His latest book is Cracks in the Wall: Beyond Apartheid in Palestine/Israel (2018)