As soon as US Secretary of State John Kerry announced the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the EU promised to do everything it could to support the new American initiative. The Middle East peace process has been a top EU priority for years. But Europeans are conscious that they lack the diplomatic clout to be a major player. Palestinians and Israelis think that EU member-states are too frequently divided among themselves. Many Israelis also argue that even though the EU and Israel have close ties, the Union does not give sufficient importance to their security concerns. Nevertheless, Europeans played a modest role in helping the US convince Israelis and Palestinians to sign up to new talks. And the EU can make further contributions to the peace process.
In July, as Secretary Kerry negotiated assiduously with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to give peace talks another chance, the EU high representative for foreign affairs Catherine Ashton announced that the EU would no longer give grants and scholarships to companies and educational institutions based in Israeli settlements. In addition, a leaked letter from Ashton detailed EU plans to require products from settlements to be labelled as such when sold in the EU. The Union, which has long argued that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law, had been working on both initiatives for a while. But the timing of the announcement and the leaked letter helped in a small way to convince both President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu to agree to peace talks.
Of course, the Obama administration was the key driver behind Abbas and Netanyahu’s endorsements of new negotiations. But according to European officials, the Palestinian president felt emboldened by the fact that the EU was willing to put international pressure on Israel. Israel, for its part, is always worried about being isolated. Netanyahu asked Kerry to convince the EU to revisit the decisions on the settlements. But Kerry told Netanyahu that he would not ask the EU to back down, and that unless Israel took part in peace talks, Tel Aviv risked similar action by other countries in the future. According to officials, the exchange between Kerry and Netanyahu weighed on the Israeli prime minister’s decision to support negotiations.
The EU helped the Americans coax the parties to the negotiating table because it has some economic leverage over them. Israel has an association agreement with the EU, and so many of its exports to Europe benefit from preferential trade terms. The Union disburses research funds and scholarships to Israeli industry and universities. And the EU is the largest donor to the Palestinians. In recent years, the European Commission and member-states have together provided €500 million a year. Amongst other things, this money has helped Palestinians develop the institutions required to function as an independent state – though more Palestinian nation-building will be needed before a two-state solution can be viable. The EU’s economic weight could be of significant help to both Israelis and Palestinians if they reached a peace deal. European states could help stabilise the region through further aid and trade concessions. The EU is already reflecting on how it could deepen bilateral ties with Israel in response to the progress in the peace process, a move the Israeli authorities greatly welcome.
Europe could also help the negotiations by making clear that if a deal was reached it would offer peacekeepers to prevent violence. Over the years, a number of European politicians have raised this possibility. Europeans already provide peacekeepers to UN monitoring missions along the Lebanese and Israeli border, and the Golan Heights. But if Europeans want their offer to be credible, they need to reassure Israelis and Palestinians that their peacekeepers would not be passive observers. Instead European troops would be given a mandate to use force if necessary to stop outbreaks of violence. EU states have sometimes imposed limitations on what troops or police forces can do when deployed, for a variety of reasons including minimising the risks to personnel. This was the case for example during an EU police monitoring mission along the border between Gaza and Egypt between 2005 and 2007. As a result, Israel never felt the mission was credible.
Finally, and controversially, the EU can support the peace effort by helping to bring Hamas into the process. The militant group, regarded by the EU, US, Israel and many other countries as a terrorist organisation, has been in sole control of Gaza for six years. Hamas, which frequently clashes militarily with Israel, is popular among Palestinians in the West Bank as well as in Gaza. Without its endorsement President Abbas will be incapable of reaching a durable peace settlement with Israel. In recent years, Egypt, Qatar and several EU governments have grudgingly reached this conclusion. Qatar and Egypt – even under former President Hosni Mubarak – have tried unsuccessfully to reconcile the warring Palestinian factions. The EU has made clear that it would be willing to work with a Palestinian unity government which included Hamas, if President Abbas were comfortable with the deal and Hamas renounced violence.
The need to include Hamas in a peace deal is also recognised by some Israeli officials, including former heads of Mossad – the Israeli national intelligence agency – and by some in the US government. During her last year in office, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked her department to work out how to engage with the militant group. But the US government is unlikely to stop boycotting Hamas, given strong Congressional opposition to the organisation.
If the talks between Netanyahu and Abbas develop into something meaningful, Secretary Kerry should make use of Europe’s willingness to engage with Hamas. With the consent of President Abbas and the Israeli government, the US should discreetly encourage the EU to make the public case for including Hamas in the peace negotiations.
Even with a co-ordinated transatlantic effort, the prospects for the nascent peace initiative are not good. Not only must Hamas and President Abbas’ Fatah party be reconciled for any Palestinian state to work, but Netanyahu will also have to ensure his coalition supports a deal (and he would then probably have to win a referendum on withdrawal from many of the West Bank settlements); meanwhile many of the Arab countries whose support will be essential, above all Egypt, are in turmoil. Hezbollah could seek to re-establish its credibility in the Middle East – damaged by its support for Syrian President Bashar Assad – through a new military confrontation with Israel. More generally, spill-over from the Syrian conflict could destabilise both Lebanon and an increasingly fragile Jordan. But the talks are worth pursuing, with strong EU backing: if they fail, it is unclear how long Mahmoud Abbas can remain Palestinian president, and few other Palestinian politicians are as supportive of a negotiated peace. Secretary Kerry would probably have preferred a better hand of cards on taking office. But the next hand could be even worse.
Clara Marina O'Donnell is a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.
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