Israel-Palestine: The Unattainable Peace
October 2015 was one of the bloodiest months in Palestine/Israel since the Second Intifada, with 69 Palestinian fatalities (including some 40 attackers or alleged attackers) and 7,392 injuries, along with eight Israeli fatalities and 115 injuries.
The number of Palestinians injured mainly during anti-occupation protests across the West Bank and Gaza Strip, was more than for the whole of 2014. 2,887 Palestinians were shot by Israeli forces with live ammunition or rubber-coated metal bullets.
The international guardians of the comatose peace process, however, remained largely on the side-lines, with little ability to influence events on the ground that have ebbed and flowed irrespective of external appeals for ‘calm.’
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and the Quartet engaged late. Kerry, for example, visited the region only in the final third of the month and when they did, could only issue appeals for a return to the status quo prior to this latest unrest, which for Palestinians at least, was hardly a picnic.
The October events are indicative of a more fundamental disconnect between the approach of the U.S., European Union (EU), and others, and what is happening on the ground.
In Washington, we recently learned that President Barack Obama has given up on the possibility of achieving a negotiated two-state solution during his remaining time in office.
On Nov. 5, Rob Malley, National Security Council coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and Gulf Region, told reporters that the White House had concluded that barring a major shift “the parties are not going to be in a position to negotiate a final status agreement.”
This does not come as a shock. Ever since the collapse of Kerry’s initiative in spring 2014, the Obama administration has been reluctant to gear up for another push at what it clearly considers to be, for the time being, a mission impossible.
With the U.S. on autopilot, Europe believes it can make a difference in the absence of a new push from Washington. But can Brussels break the impasse? Three dynamics will prove crucial.
First, the EU, as an institution and many of its influential officials, is very much in favor of close relations with Israel. This can be forgotten in light of the current tensions between Tel Aviv and Brussels, but the facts speak for themselves.
EU-Israel relations are broad-ranging and financially significant. In 2014, total bilateral trade was worth 30 billion euros. The last upgrade of relations impacted 60 different areas of cooperation, including science and technology.
Visiting the University of Haifa in 2012, then-President of the European Commission Jose Manuel Barroso said: “A continent such as Europe, that invests heavily in innovation, needs to have close links with a ‘start-up nation’ like Israel.”
However, the EU also sees itself as based on the rule of law. That is where the tensions have emerged in relation to Israel’s ongoing colonization of the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT).
Before the latest ‘crisis’ over the labelling of goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements in the OPT, there was the 2013 publication of guidelines “on the eligibility of Israeli entities and their activities in the occupied territories for grants, prizes and financial instruments.”
These various initiatives seek to implement through legal instruments a pre-existing, and long-standing position. They are not sanctions, but reflect, primarily, the desire for close ties with Israel, along with the belief in a system of law (as well as Brussels’ fear that their desired outcome, a two-state solution, is at risk of extinction).
The second factor is that the EU remains stuck in a paradigm of false symmetry. In a statement issued late Oct. 2015, the EU’s Mogherini stated that it is up to “the Israeli and the Palestinian leadership to demonstrate with acts that their commitment to the two state solution is real, and not just fake, not just a slogan.” But what more could Mahmoud Abbas realistically do?
Israel is the occupying power; the Palestinians are stateless. Even Abbas himself is dependent on the goodwill of Israeli soldiers and his VIP card to travel in and out of Ramallah. Interventions by the EU and the Quartet are bedeviled by the same framework that doomed previous ‘peace process’ initiatives to serve merely as cover for consolidated Israeli colonization.
Even more telling were her concluding remarks, when she urged action for the sake of “the ordinary people that today are seeing their children dying on both sides, with different numbers, but on both sides.” Briefly, a recognition of the imbalance emerged, but it was passed over quickly, as if Mogherini was embarrassed to acknowledge the colonial asymmetry.
The EU sees Israel as having “legitimate security needs,” and its government’s policies are thus viewed as either appropriate or excessive within that framework; there is nothing, however, about settler-colonialism, expulsions, or systematic discrimination.
The most critical issue is that the EU remains unwilling to either apply genuine pressure on Israel, the occupier, or to end its own complicity in the violation of Palestinians’ rights.
Instead, Brussels is reduced to dangling the carrot of a future peacetime economic bonanza, or issuing copy and paste statements of exhortations and warnings.
The EU urges ‘both sides’ to take concrete steps yet never considers any of its own. Taken on its own terms, EU policy resembles the actions of a desperate entrepreneur who continues to plough money into a failing business (and for the EU, it is very much business).
A modest step like the newly published “interpretative notice” for the labelling of settlement produce was on hold during the Kerry-led peace talks, on the basis that this and other potential measures antagonize the Israelis and jeopardize negotiations.
Yet even with no peace process to speak of, the EU remains paralyzed. Despite the suggestions, or warnings, for now at least, more radical proposals do not seem to be imminent.
These three factors: The EU’s self-interest in close relations with Israel; its ‘two sides’ paradigm; and the lack of political will to sanction Israel, are a recipe for irrelevancy. But there are signs that, slowly, things could change.
In February 2014, when approached about Israel’s successive governments’ doing their best to block the emergence of a Palestinian State, an EU advisor to the peace process replied: “the only thing I have in front of me is an Israeli PM who subscribes to a two-state solution.”
Even at the time, this was a doubtful assertion to say the least.
Now, however, the penny is starting to drop, particularly in light of Benjamin Netanyahu’s re-election earlier this year. A key indicator is the public impatience and frustration of Israel’s natural allies within the EU.
On the day Israelis went to the polls, U.K. Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond claimed that Israel was guilty of “what looks and feels like a deliberate attempt to sabotage the two-state-solution.”
During a July visit to the region, Hammond used a press conference with Netanyahu to warn of the danger that Israel’s “standing with public opinion around the world will decline further.”
The same month, Czech Foreign Minister Lubomir Zaoralek admitted on a trip to Israel it was “getting more difficult [to avoid initiatives against Israel] with the current government and with the opposition to the two-state solution.”
For some in Israel, these comments reflected the country’s “situation with the European Union. Our friends also feel the tension.”
Support for substantial measures such as suspending the EU-Israel Association Agreement, or ending research program funding for Israeli military companies, remains a minority position: statements to that effect typically garner the backing of 1 in 10 European parliament members.
Yet without a big break from the priorities and assumptions that have long-shaped EU policy, then Brussels’ attempts to fill the gap left by the White House will meet a similar fate to the past initiatives of Kerry and others. Palestinians will pay the price for this inaction and complicity.
Published first by Newsweek Middle East.