by Judy Dempsey
MURIEL ASSEBURG|SENIOR FELLOW IN THE AFRICA AND MIDDLE EAST DIVISION AT THE GERMAN INSTITUTE FOR INTERNATIONAL AND SECURITY AFFAIRS (SWP)
Europeans have never been in the driver’s seat when it comes to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Still, they did exert influence in the past, for example, by shaping international language on conflict resolution. Yet, over the last few years, the EU and its member states have played an ever smaller role.
Three developments are crucial in that context: in view of other crises, Europeans have deprioritized their engagement for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Since the war in Ukraine, Europeans have been focused on energy security, alliance-building against Russia, and military and arms cooperation with Israel among others. And intra-European divisions on Israel and Palestine have remained strong.
Thus, even in face of escalating violence in the West Bank, an Israeli government set on Jewish supremacy and permanent control over the West Bank, and a Palestinian Authority that lacks legitimacy and is fast losing control, Europeans have stuck to an increasingly meaningless two-state mantra rather than sending clear signals regarding the Israeli government’s program, engaging in crisis management, or pushing for Palestinian Authority reform.
The December 2022 United Nations General Assembly vote on a resolution calling for the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to provide a legal opinion on the legality of Israeli occupation policies was telling in that regard, with the European vote split among approvals, rejections, and abstentions.
SHADA ISLAM|MANAGING DIRECTOR OF THE NEW HORIZONS PROJECT
The EU was once viewed as an important and credible actor in the Middle East, even a potential counterweight to the United States. All that is now ancient history.
Today, as Israeli-Palestinian violence escalates and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken tours the region, the EU has been sadly reduced to little more than a passive bystander, distracted and hamstrung by internal divisions—and largely ridiculed for an irritating tendency to issue bland, ritualistic statements which do little more than voice “strong condemnation” of events in the region.
The cautious approach has won the EU few friends among Palestinians who want a stronger European defense of their rights. Nor has this approach been appreciated in Israel, where the EU’s special representative for the Middle East Peace Process, Dutch diplomat Sven Koopmans, has been unable to get any high-level meetings.
To recapture any geopolitical relevance in the region, the EU should abandon its tired and out-of-date rulebook in favor of a new rights-based approach that puts the question of Palestinian rights at the top of the international agenda.
Such a move would amplify Blinken’s comments in 2021 that Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy “equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and democracy.”
It would also add pressure on Israel’s new far-right coalition as it plans an overhaul of the country’s judiciary which many fear will severely limit the power of the Supreme Court and give the government the power to choose judges.
ALEXANDER LOENGAROV|SENIOR AFFILIATED FELLOW AT KU LEUVEN’S INSTITUTE OF INTERNATIONAL LAW
Yes—and although it is still limited, it can be stepped up. Because the Israeli-Palestinian question is very complex and multifaceted, there is no one-step recipe for Europeans to follow. As an organization, the European Union has two advantages it can use.
First of all, it can develop its role as a neutral broker. When talking to Israelis and Palestinians at moments of heightened tension, one often hears both sides claim that “Europe is against them,” something that probably means that the European positioning holds middle ground. In contacts—and possibly one day negotiations—with Israelis and Palestinians, that negative neutrality could be turned into a positive one.
Second, as the biggest donor to the Palestinian Authority, the EU could, in parallel with requests made to Israel, increase the conditionality of its assistance to the Palestinians. All in all, it is necessary for Europeans to invest in understanding the multiple narratives that exist amid Israelis and Palestinians, as this would help gain their trust and better target policies, measures, and declarations. Greater awareness among the European public would also be more than welcome, in particular as regards the people-to-people peacebuilding that exists on the ground.
The views expressed above are the author’s own.
HUGH LOVATT|SENIOR POLICY FELLOW AT THE EUROPEAN COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS
Europe has long had the potential to positively influence the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After all, it has extensive socioeconomic and political ties with Israel and is the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority. Yet it has often failed to make the most of its unique position. Deference to U.S. leadership and internal divisions among European states are not the only reasons.
Decades ago, Europe was a trailblazer, helping drive change through the Oslo Peace Process and positioning itself as an early proponent of the two-state solution. As diplomatic momentum ebbed, it failed to offer an effective response to Israel’s entrenchment of a one-state reality of inequality and open-ended conflict.
Today, Europe finds itself attempting to prop up a status quo that is increasingly unsustainable due to the collapse of the Oslo two-state paradigm and a brewing intifada in the West Bank. This has left the EU marginalized and unable to exert real influence to shape conflict dynamics. It has also come at the expense of European efforts to contain spiraling violence and reconstruct the foundations for meaningful peace talks by leveraging relations with both sides to decisively challenge Israel’s settlement project and reverse Palestinian institutional turmoil.
DENIS MACSHANE|FORMER EU MINISTER FOR EUROPE
No. European politicians and the EU no longer have any locus in the Middle East conflict. Israeli politics has been infected by the nationalist populist politics of many European parties with its hate of “the other”, “the foreigner”, “the outsider.”
In too many countries anti-semitism in its modern form has been given platforms and been allowed to spread in different ways, especially in universities.
European governments of whatever political color have been too complaisant with anti-Jewish Gulf and other Arab or majority Muslim state rulers in order to access energy or sell made-in-Europe commodities or services.
Equally, Europe has done nothing to support a two-state solution other than signing cheques for Palestinians displaced by the increasing rightist politicians who rule Israel.
Of course, engagement and efforts and conferences are worthwhile, but Israel is fed up being patronized by and lectured by Europeans and the Palestinians and their supporters in the richer Arab world cannot control Hamas and those who deny the right of Israel to exist.
P.S. The same might be said about Serbia and Kosovo as the Western Balkans at times looks like heading down the same political dead-end road as Israel and Palestine.
KARIM MAKDISI|ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF INTERNATIONAL POLITICS, AND DIRECTOR OF THE PROGRAM IN PUBLIC POLICY AND INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS AT THE AMERICAN UNIVERSITY OF BEIRUT (AUB)
I think it is time to ask “stronger” questions at this stage, as this question is the same one that could have been asked for a few decades now. I don’t think it has much relevance today.
The question for today is: Can Europe afford to continue to deepen ties with extreme right-wing governments in Israel while maintaining any kind of legitimacy as an actor representing liberal values and international law within the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
AARON DAVID MILLER|SENIOR FELLOW IN THE AMERICAN STATECRAFT PROGRAM OF THE CARNEGIE ENDOWMENT FOR INTERNATIONAL PEACE
If by influence you mean can the EU or individual European countries play the role of mediator in any putative Israeli-Palestinian negotiation, or might they serve in some capacity as a convener if not as mediator, the likely answer is no.
There was a brief period of time in the early 2000s when the Quartet—an alignment of the United States, Russia, the UN, and the EU—played a supporting role. But its influence was minimal. And in any event, there’s little chance of any formal peace process or negotiations for the foreseeable future.
The more relevant question when it comes to influence is whether or not Europe might act unilaterally with each side to restrain bad behavior and encourage good. The answer is perhaps, but only at the margins. Europe has much to offer Israel and the Palestinian Authority in terms of economic and diplomatic benefits. And if pressure were applied, much it could also take away. But divided and unwilling to use its economic and political leverage, this is a thought experiment.
And even if the EU were prepared to get tough, would the Israelis and Palestinians listen when it came to their impacting their own vital national interests—pushing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to hold elections and the Israelis to stop settlement activities?
The EU might consider revisiting, with the United States, coordination and cooperation in some new format. But it’s likely that we’re entering a period where Israeli actions, especially in the West Bank and Jerusalem, are likely to create real tensions between the EU and Israel.
Bottom line: Israel and the Palestinians are in a strategic cul-de-sac. And to say the least, no one, let alone the Europeans, acting alone or together, has the key to get them out.
NORA MULLER|EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS, KORBER-STIFTUNG
The latest round of escalation between Israelis and Palestinians is a reminder that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—once dubbed the mother of all conflicts today is an object of far less international attention yet still carries the potential to affect European security interests.
Why? Because it might further destabilize a region on Europe’s doorstep which is already plagued by multiple crises—at a time when Europe’s political bandwidth is almost entirely consumed by Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine.
What is more, the current flare-up of the decade-old conflict yet again exposes the mismatch between the EU’s security interests on the one hand and the bloc’s failure to act accordingly beyond the ritualized diplomatic practices. Not exactly a testament to Weltpolitikfahigkeit (loosely translated as the capacity to play a role, as a union, in shaping global affairs).
SHIMON STEIN|FORMER ISRAELI AMBASSADOR TO GERMANY
The answer to the question, whether the Europeans—that is, the European Union—has any influence in ending the current violence is no.
The EU does on such occasions what it is good at, and that is, issuing declarations calling on the parties to “reverse the spiral of violence and engage in meaningful efforts to restart peace negotiations….” These declarations are partially devoid of any realism and have zero impact on the parties.
To have influence means to have leverage on the parties in case their polices and actions run counter to your interests. Does the EU have leverage? The answer is yes. The leverages at its disposal include financial and economic, supporting in a significant way the Palestinian Authority and, on the Israeli side, being involved in any number of cooperation agreements. And the EU has political and diplomatic leverage—voting in the UN and other international organizations.
The question is whether the EU wants to use the leverage it has as a means to promote its prime interest: the realization of the two-state solution which currently seems a distant fantasy. Under the current circumstances, the EU should, in close consultation with the United States—given the improved transatlantic relations—use joint leverages to pursue their common interest, thereby helping the conflicting parties “to save themselves in spite of themselves.”
*first published in: Carnegieeurope.eu