Few issues of diplomatic conversation today have quite the same ability to generate a rolling of the eyes and turning of the page as the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Stuck is an understatement.
Israel’s government argues with its Supreme Court over re-locating a few dozen families from an illegal outpost to an illegal settlement, ignoring the bigger picture, whereby one in ten Jewish Israelis now reside in the Occupied Palestinian territories.
The Palestinian government (West Bank branch) shuffles Ministers, appeals for alms, and issues letters to Israel’s leaders while the ‘statehood’ component of its institution-building project becomes atrophied. The other Palestinian government (Gaza branch) entrenches its control over a tiny sliver of land (approximately one-fifteenth the size of the West Bank). The gulf between the two threatens to become unbridgeable.
Washington meanwhile has a “closed for business until further notice” sign hanging in its window.
Against this backdrop, Europe would seem an unlikely place to look for any sign of hope or fresh thinking. Yet that is precisely what just happened. European Union foreign ministers issue a lot of statements. As a rule of thumb they offer up tedious fayre. The EU Council Conclusions issued on 14 May were something different. Thirty months ago, under the Swedish Presidency, Europe made its last detailed and forward-leaning comments on the peace process. This time the EU pushed the envelope a little further. Interestingly, it received little attention.
The EU did three things of note. First, they described realities on the ground in a gritty, granular and gloss-free way. The detail and brutal accuracy of their statement is unprecedented - on settlement “acceleration” and “settler extremism”, on east Jerusalem and ‘Area C’ (the 60 % of the West Bank under exclusive Israeli control).
The statement twice refers to the “forced transfer” of Palestinians, it bemoans the “prevention of peaceful Palestinian cultural, economic, social or political activities” in east Jerusalem and invokes the applicability of international humanitarian law and international law, “irrespective of recent decisions by the government of Israel”.
Secondly, the EU is looking afresh at the trajectory of Israeli-Palestinian developments. Three times the statement discusses the receding “viability of the two-state solution”. Any inquisitive observer will notice how fiendishly difficult a workable two state outcome has become, yet international diplomacy sometimes acts as if a two-state blueprint can be implemented, off-the-shelf, at any time in the future. Europe is starting to acknowledge the realities of a closing window.
Finally Europe has opened the door to operational steps, notably with regard to settlement products and how they access and appear in European markets, but also in terms of leveraging Palestinian development in ‘area C’ and east Jerusalem. The EU Heads of Mission to the territories recently issued two damning reports on Israeli policy in East Jerusalem and ‘Area C’ – the political bosses have now endorsed their findings.
The EU takes care to also stress its “fundamental commitment to the security of Israel”.
Pause. Europe’s latest missive is clearly not going to change Israeli/Palestinian realities overnight. If anything the gap between European rhetoric and European action has widened. Achieving consensus for this statement among the twenty seven was far from easy (the current Czech and Dutch Governments are particularly susceptible to Israeli settler special pleading).
Holding that consensus together as words translate into deliverables, especially if there is a need to respond to (predictable) Israeli intransigence will be challenging. That Council Conclusion also contained plenty of empty old rhetoric, and slippage back to an emphasis on resuming go-nowhere negotiations is always a default option.
The items for immediate follow-up will likely revolve around technical committees and administrative details, notably regarding settlement products. Those are already distinctively labeled in the UK, and other EU member-states are now likely to follow suit (Denmark has gotten that ball rolling). All should go further in applying the provisions of existing agreements more stringently to settlements and Israeli activity beyond the green line. It’s a starting point and its technical nature is one reason for the lack of fanfare surrounding the EU Council conclusions.
Europe has leverage. Contrary to the spin emanating from certain quarters, European leaders tend to be reluctant critics of Israel. In my experience a characteristic of European officials is their caring and positive predisposition towards Israel. European leaders often take a broad view of Israeli and Jewish security needs - unsurprising given European history.
Lifting the veil of impunity on Israel’s self-defeating policies in the territories and insisting on Israeli respect for international and humanitarian law constitute steps that are absolutely consistent with that friendship and with that concern for Israel, not least given the implications of the changes sweeping the Middle East.