European Push for Palestine

Global Centre Stage

Although dismissed by some as purely symbolic, European recognition of a Palestinian state does have practical consequences, maintains Hugh Lovatt

Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman paid Europe an unintended (if misplaced) compliment in January when he warned a gathering of Israel's ambassadors that the number one challenge facing Israel in 2015 is not the Palestinians, Iran or Hezbollah, but rather western Europe. After years of belittling Europe's role in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict as nothing but a 'payer' […] it seems that Israelis may actually be waking up to the fact that Europe could also be turning into a 'player'.

From the perspective of Israel's Foreign Ministry, the second half of 2014 saw a particularly unwelcome turn of events in Europe, starting with Sweden’s decision to officially recognise Palestine in October. In doing so, Sweden became the first EU member state to recognise a Palestinian state (although several Soviet bloc countries did so in 1988 prior to joining the EU). Stockholm’s decision also set in motion a wave of parliamentary votes across Europe in support of recognition, the latest of which saw the European Parliament overwhelmingly endorsing recognition 'hand-in-hand with negotiations'.

Although dismissed by some as purely symbolic, European recognition of a Palestinian state does have practical consequences, as Mattia Toaldo and myself previously maintained in our article titled, Would EU recognition of Palestine be more than symbolic?'1 Such a declaration carries with it a series of responsibilities on the part of the recognising party to bring their policies and actions in line with principles of international law that reject the continuation of Israel’s illegal occupation. Just as importantly perhaps, recognition sends a strong signal that continued actions by Israel that deepen its hold over the OPTs and undermine the chances of achieving a two-state solution - which continues to be the cornerstone of European engagement towards the conflict – will incur a cost in its relationship with the EU.

Consequences of Europe's Changing Stance

That it has taken some 20 years of failed Israeli/Palestine negotiations for Europe to finally reach this conclusion indicates the degree of European frustration and growing impatience with the policies of Israeli Prime Minister, Benyamin Netanyahu. Those criticising the Israeli government include not merely political figures long supportive of Palestinian aspirations, but increasingly many considered to be friends of Israel. Europe's changing stance towards the conflict can be ascribed far more to Netanyahu’s behaviour than to any coherent Palestinian strategy for winning over Europe. As Sweden's Foreign Minister recently stated: "It is unacceptable how they [Israel] have been talking about us and everybody else. It has irritated not only us, but the Americans and everyone who has anything to do with them right now.”

While the current wave of recognition seems to have run its course for now, other EU member states can be expected to follow Sweden’s example in the future, with several raising the prospect of recognising a Palestinian state as a means of unlocking more meaningful negotiations. In the meantime, Europe can be expected to pursue efforts to distinguish between Israel and its settlements within the EU’s bilateral relations. These build on the precedent set by the EU’s July 2013 Guidelines excluding Israeli settlement based entities from receiving EU funding.

Since then the EU has quietly sought to exclude certain settlement products from European markets, (ostensibly over issues relating to consumer protection) although this remains far short of a total ban on Israeli imports originating in the Occupied Territories, and even further from the kind of EU action taken in response to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. The EU member states have also pursued initiatives on the national level targeting Israel’s settlement economy, including in some instances labelling settlement products and issuing advisories warning European companies of the legal consequences of doing business with Israeli entities implicated in the occupation. The latter led a number of banks and pension funds to halt cooperation with Israeli financial institutions.

The EU has argued that such actions merely re-affirm its longstanding view on the illegality of Israel’s settlements and occupation. But while Israel has publically sought to downplay the extent to which the EU’s differentiation policy will affect it, alarm has grown amongst officials. In a leaked report, Israel’s Foreign Ministry warned that: "The Europeans are creating a clear connection between diplomatic relations and economic ones [and] in this context, it is important to note that Europe is Israel’s main trading partner." Former Mossad Director General Shabtai Shavit similarly warned that ‘Europe, our biggest market, has grown tired of us and is heading toward imposing sanctions on us.’

Although the 'Boycott, Sanction and Divestment' movement has been growing at a grassroots level in Europe, talk of the EU imposing sanctions against Israel is unfounded. That is because European actions do not target Israel, but rather its settlements, and again, only partially. That said, given the undifferentiated nature of Israel’s economy, which makes no distinction between 'legal' Israel and settlements, such actions could well have much wider consequences. In particular, given that the full application of international law in bilateral relations with Israel could prohibit the EU from importing any product tainted by Israel's occupation, and not just those originating in settlements. If Israel wants to continue to export its products to Europe, then it would have to guarantee that its products are ‘settlement free’. For example, it would have to prove that a bottle of wine produced in Israel does not contain any grapes grown in the settlements. And what applies to wine would apply to other products, including even financial services.

Financial and Political Costs of EU Differentiation

Acknowledging a distinction between Israel and its settlements is politically difficult for the Israeli government, some of whose members are themselves settlers – Avigdor Lieberman lives in Nokdim and Housing Minister Uri Ariel in Kfar Adumim, both West Bank settlements. Its initial refusal to do so in order to join the EU’s Horizon 2020 flagship research and development programme began to expose a split between the settlers and their supporters on one hand, and Israeli scientists and academics on the other, many of whom were left asking why they should pay the price for Israel's settlement enterprise. Risking a public backlash had Israel been excluded from the EU grant, Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Right wing government quietly acquiesced to EU differentiation. By placing such requirements on Israel, Europe was therefore able to challenge Israeli efforts to normalise the occupation and erase the 1967 ‘Green Line’.

The story of Horizon 2020 shows to what extent the EU’s policy of differentiation creates not only financial costs for Israel, but also political costs which directly impact Israeli public opinion. Many voters in Israel consider resolving socio-economic issues far more pressing than the Palestinian issue. Even when it comes to foreign policy concerns, Palestinians are generally far from the top of the list. In the absence of any pressure either internally or externally, Israeli leaders will have little impetus to change the status quo. The founder of the new Kulanu party Moshe Kahlon typifies the attitude held by many politicians who believe Israel should ‘continue with life as usual until we reach an arrangement and [enter] negotiations. As long as there’s no arrangement, there should be no change in the status quo.’

European actions must, therefore, drive home to Israelis the unsustainability of the status quo and that future development of relations with the EU depends on Israeli engagement towards a lasting peace based on a two state solution. A recent poll in which 62 percent of respondents opposed pursuing a policy that could bring about a European economic embargo indicates that Israelis are indeed sensitive to Europe’s actions. If those unconnected to the occupation suddenly start to feel the consequences of their government's actions in the OPTs, then this could help change their electoral priorities and inject a much needed sense of urgency into Israeli efforts to resolve the conflict.

Possible Scenarios

Despite the leverage at its disposal, Europe has proven reticent in holding Israel accountable for its actions and there is little expectation that it will adopt a more forceful policy prior to Israel’s March 17 elections. The emergence of a Centrist government under Labour and Hatnuah is likely to encourage EU member states to further blunt the full implementation of their differentiation policy in order to give the new Israeli government time to demonstrate political engagement with the Palestinians. The re-election of Netanyahu though for a fourth term and the formation of a new Right wing government in which pro-settler voices will be louder than ever will likely result in further European antagonism. In such a scenario, the EU would come under pressure to not only continue further down its differentiation track, but also to explore more forceful diplomatic responses to Israel’s transgression of ‘red-lines’ relating to actions in the occupied territories.

A More Assertive Europe in 2015?

Under either scenario though, 2015 will likely see Europe assume a stepped up diplomatic role. European diplomats are increasingly acknowledging that an exclusive US monopoly over the peace process cannot lead to final agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. While the EU is neither able nor willing to seriously challenge the US' seat at the head of the negotiating table, Europe does have an important role to play as an ‘outrider’ to create conditions favourable to a future US peace push, even more so if Washington takes a back seat in the short term. This division of labour between the US and the EU will, however, not mean that both parties should (publically) agree with each other all the time. A Europe that can learn to disagree with the US is far more beneficial than a Europe that is content to remain in the US’ slipstream. A more assertive Europe can also start to counter the asymmetry that has characterised the US’ dealing with Israelis and Palestinians.

The differing positions adopted in response to Palestinian moves at the UN Security Council by the US and EU members are perhaps illustrative of this. Although the UNSC resolution submitted in December 2013 on behalf of the Palestinians did not pass, only garnering eight votes, it was supported by France. In contrast the US voted against, with many expecting that Washington would have used its veto had the resolution secured the requisite nine votes. Although the UK abstained, London has reportedly been working with Paris and Berlin (who together form the E3) on an alternative resolution that ‘affirms the urgent need to attain, no later than 24 months after the adoption of this resolution, a just, lasting and comprehensive peaceful solution’. The resolution also spells out clear parameters for a negotiating solution, including borders based on June 4, 1967 with mutually agreed limited equivalent land swaps, security agreements that respect the sovereignty of a non-militarised state of Palestine, and Jerusalem as the shared capital of the two states. Although the E3 resolution is tamer when compared to the Palestinian version, it is nonetheless still fairly supportive of Palestinian aspirations.

Still, there is no shortage of UNSC resolutions that remain unimplemented. Securing E3 backing for a resolution is, therefore, perhaps more important than tabling a strong resolution without the EU support, especially if the result in both cases is a US veto. With a friendlier UN Security Council make-up in 2015, there is a good chance that a renewed Palestinian initiative could secure the requisite nine votes. However, this should not exempt the PLO from seeking broader EU support, even if this means submitting a resolution with less bight. European buy-in would underline the EU’s desire to play an active role in pushing for the resumption of a more meaningful peace process and set off yet another alarm bell in Israel.

Of course, recent diplomatic overtures by European states such as France could in fact be nothing more than a holding exercise designed to kick the can down road while dodging the most complex issues. And indeed, there is always the risk of embarking on another Oslo-type process that merely manages the conflict, rather than resolving it. In this respect, Palestinians need to do a better job of holding Europe’s feet to the fire, by demanding that they match words with deeds. In cases such as Palestinian accession to the ICC – where EU member states have been lukewarm despite their professed support for international justice and accountability – Palestinians must highlight Europe’s double standards. Europe will not be more Palestinian than the Palestinians, but by making concrete demands of European leaders and forcing them to account for their policies, the EU could perhaps one day become the reluctant game-changer. This will require the Palestinian side to be more proactive in engaging directly with the European public and their leaders.

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Hugh Lovatt

Hugh Lovatt is the Israel/Palestine Project Coordinator at the European Council on Foreign Relations. He previously worked on Middle-East policy for the European Parliament.

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