If Europe really wants influence in Israel-Palestine, it needs a new approach

PA Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki (Hannibal Hanschke - Anadolu Agency)

Antoine Shalhat

Middle East Monitor  /  December 31, 2020

As US President-elect Joe Biden waits to take office on 20 January, Israel is looking at turning over a new page in what it calls the transatlantic relations network. The US, meanwhile, is expected to coordinate its positions with the EU on a series of issues that will shape the geostrategic reality in the coming decades. Some of these positions are linked with or significant to Israel, especially the Palestine issue and the Iranian nuclear programme.

This is logical given what the US Democratic Party expressed in its official election campaign, as well as what Biden said before and after the election. Moreover, Europe has published a proposal for a transatlantic agenda and global cooperation that takes into account the balance of power and the changing geopolitical and technological reality in the international arena. The European Commission’s detailed plan, “EU-US: A new transatlantic agenda for global change”, joins the recommendations of the NATO Reflection Group in “NATO 2030: United for a New Era”.

Israel can ward off the possibility of fundamental change with the turning of this new page, especially in its policy towards the Palestinians. This is not only due to the latest regional developments resulting from the Arab normalisation deals, but are also derived from differences that preceded them, whether in positions or in general behaviour.

For example, a policy document issued by Israel’s Institute for National Security Studies recently confirmed that while the US Democratic Party and the EU agree on the need for a solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict based on the principle of “two states for two peoples”, they do not agree on the central components of this conflict. Contrary to the position of the EU, the Democrats do not mention the borders of 4 June 1967. What’s more, they recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel without any special mention of East Jerusalem. The EU, however, addresses East Jerusalem as part of the territories occupied by Israel in 1967. Nevertheless, although Jerusalem is recognised as the capital of Israel by the US, the Democrat programme notes that the city’s status remains subject to negotiations within the framework of the final settlement talks.

While this programme only expresses its opposition to expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the EU opposes settlements per se, as they are all illegal under international law. The EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, has made it clear to the European Parliament that the situation on the ground in the Middle East remains very worrying, especially because of the continued building and expansion of illegal settlements and a significant increase in the number of Palestinian homes demolished by Israel. He stressed that there is a need to abandon Israel’s annexation plans and not simply suspend them.

However, it must be said that Israel has been ignoring the EU for a long time. Such disregard has become even more evident with the presence of its friends within the EU, such as Hungary, Romania, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Other countries in Europe take the view that criticism of Israel has to be criminalised as “anti-Semitism”.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s words during a closed meeting with the leaders of those friendly countries continue to echo: “The European Union is the only association of countries in the world that conditions its relations with Israel on political conditions, the only one!”

This means that if Europe really wants to be influential, it has to adopt a new approach. And that could go either way.

Antoine Shalhat is a Palestinian scholar of Israeli studies