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The EU becomes assertive in the Middle East peace process

The adoption of this EU directive might be the first step towards a much needed ‘paradigm shift’ that will no longer enable Israel to dismiss the EU’s voice as ‘unpleasant background noise’, the phrase used by foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor in 2012.

Traditionally, the European Union (EU) has been blamed for its ‘megaphone’ diplomacy and for its rhetoric that is never translated into real foreign policy. This applies in particular to the EU’s role in the Middle East Peace Process. This time though, a different path has been followed. No ‘megaphone’ declarations or statements by any of the EU’s top officials. Instead, the adoption of a simple (and largely symbolic) directive by the European Commission was enough to trigger an ‘earthquake’, according to a senior Israeli official, and to shake EU-Israel relations to the very foundations.

What is behind a seemingly harmless directive that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls a ‘diktat’ and that infuriates Israeli centre-right policy circles so much? The directive, which was released on Friday, 19 July and which is destined to enter into force on 1 January 2014, is based on the EU Foreign Ministers’ affirmation of May 2012 that they would  ‘fully and effectively implement EU legislation and the bilateral arrangements applicable to settlement products’.

This was taken further in December of the same year when the Council of the EU declared ‘its commitment to ensure that – in line with international law – all agreements between the State of Israel and the European Union must unequivocally and explicitly indicate their inapplicability to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, namely the Golan Heights, the West Bank including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip’. Back then, everyone treated these Council Conclusions as one more declaration, as one more proof of EU rhetoric that will soon be forgotten. But this time it was not.

The directive will prohibit the issuing of grants, funding, prizes or scholarships unless a settlement exclusion sentence is included. In other words: EU financial assistance will no longer go to Israeli entities in the occupied territories. The directive covers most areas of co-operation between the EU and Israel such as science, economics, culture, sports and academia, but it does not cover trade-related issues.

The guidelines clearly state that ‘only Israeli entities having their place of establishment within Israel’s pre-1967 borders will be considered eligible’ for EU funding. Officially, the purpose for the adoption of these guidelines is ‘to make a distinction between the State of Israel and the occupied territories when it comes to EU support’. Interestingly, however, the EU-Israel Association Agreement (AA), the legal framework governing relations between Brussels and Israel, in force since 2000, does not specify what constitutes the ‘territory of the State of Israel’.

How should the adoption of the directive be interpreted? Why is this  happening now? Two points stand out.

First, the adoption of the directive is certainly more than just a ‘correction’ to the EU-Israeli AA and reflects a growing sense of frustration in Brussels. It comes at a time when US Secretary of State John Kerry is in the region for the sixth time since he took office. During his previous visit, in May 2013, he pushed and convinced the EU to postpone plans for labeling settlement products, in order to distinguish them from other Israeli products, on the basis that such a decision might jeopardize his efforts to revive talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Today, almost two months later, confronted with a hawkish Israeli government and a Palestinian Authority that is internally divided, the EU decided to act. One of the reasons behind this decision is Kerry’s inability to blow ‘fresh’ air into what is left of the peace process despite the fact that he recently announced the resumption of talks between Israelis and Palestinians, the details of which though ‘are still to be formalized’.

The prospects of a breakthrough seem as distant as ever mainly due to the fact that the talks sponsored by Kerry offer nothing fundamentally different. The US administration’s proposal to invest $4 billion in the Palestinian economy is hardly a new approach. Rather, it reflects a policy that has been adopted by the international community in large after the 1993 Oslo Accords  – throwing money after it unconditionally in the hope that this will bring peace and solve problems.

While the EU was instrumental in sustaining this approach, developments in recent years have made the EU and member states’ governments become more impatient with Israeli policies. In March 2012, in an unprecedented display of shaming and blaming, European Commissioner Stefan Füle presented a detailed list of 82 EU-funded projects worth almost €30 million which were destroyed by Israel in the period 2001-2011. In the months that followed, frustration grew further as settlement expansion activities in the occupied territories continued and as the Israeli Defence Forces carried out Operation Pillar of Defence in November 2012, shelling more than 1500 sites in the Gaza Strip.

 Secondly, the EU’s seemingly sudden display of muscle power should be seen as nothing more than just the culmination of EU foreign policy practice towards the Middle East Peace Process during all these years. In fact, since the early 1970s when the EU issued a statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the first time, a subtle, yet gradual process of convergence of EU member states’ positions has occurred, resulting in an increasingly assertive, more Israel-critical attitude of the EU as a whole.

Thus, in 1973 the then European Community (EC) recognized the legitimate rights of the Palestinians and in 1980, through its Venice Declaration, the EC also recognized the Palestinian right to self-determination. In 1999 the EU’s Berlin Declaration ‘prepared the ground’ for the adoption of the two-state solution and in 2002, through its Seville Declaration, the EU made explicit that a future Palestinian state should be based on the 1967 borders.

On 14 May 2012, besides adopting some of the most wide-ranging recommendations on Israel’s policies in the occupied territories, EU foreign ministers stated for the first time bluntly that ‘ending the conflict was a European interest’. This culminated in the decision of the majority of EU member states’ governments in late November 2012 to abstain or vote in favour (the Czech Republic was the only EU member states voting against) of the upgrade of Palestine to ‘observer-member state’ in the UN.

For years, it was fashionable for policy-makers and analysts alike to indulge in EU-bashing, not least in view of the many instances during which the EU presented itself as a divided and fragmented actor.

However, taking into account how the EU’s position towards Israel, the Palestinians and thus the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has, in fact, been evolving below this surface of critique and finger pointing, it might no longer be adequate to continue such practices.

In the words of Sandra De Waele, head of the political and press section in the EU delegation to Israel, “the policy is not new. The fact that the rules of the game have been put down in writing, is what is really new”.

In a recent letter addressed to Lady Ashton, former senior EU officials warned that ‘the Occupation is actually being entrenched by the present western policy,’ and ‘later generations will see it as unforgivable that we Europeans not only allowed the situation to develop to this point of acute tension, but took no action now to remedy the continuing destruction of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination’.

The authors also argued that ‘the Peace Process as conceived in the Oslo Agreements has nothing more to offer’. In this vein, the adoption of the EU directive might be the first step towards a much needed ‘paradigm shift’ that will no longer enable Israel to dismiss the EU’s voice as ‘unpleasant background noise’, a phrase used by foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor in 2012.

As Akiva Eldar, a veteran Israeli journalist put it “the Israeli government didn't take the Europeans too seriously and crossed over from just ignoring them to humiliating them. The EU looked at the current cabinet and thought, ‘Hey, that isn't rain: they are spitting on us.’”  

Unsurprisingly, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu, who like most Israeli officials was caught by surprise by Brussels’ move – even though independent observers had been aware of EU plans to put in place a ‘territoriality clause’ for quite some time – reacted by convening an urgency cabinet meeting at the end of which it was agreed that pressure should be put on Ashton and European Commission President Barroso to postpone the release of the guidelines.

At the same time, the Israeli Foreign Ministry, determined to downplay the importance of the guidelines, issued a statement considering them to be mere policy recommendations rather than binding the EU itself.

Three lessons can be learnt from these latest developments. First, the reactions of the centre-right political establishment in Israel just show the deep ideational divisions that exist nowadays in the relationship between Israel and an increasingly self-assertive post-Lisbon EU and, in fact, the wider world.

Second, this divide is likely to deepen, as the new generation of Israeli political elites on the centre-right, inward-looking and self-centered, has been growing up with, and is socialized in, a discourse whose sole objective is to legitimize the annexation of the West Bank. Third, the adoption of this new directive is a clear reminder to Israel that it can no longer continue to refute principles of international law indefinitely without facing any consequences.

Finally, this should also help Brussels to come to terms with reality, namely that playing a more political role in the resolution of the conflict and thus in regional affairs will not always be welcome by all. But, arguably, this is the price the EU will have to pay if it wants to be taken seriously – in the Middle East and elsewhere.

About the authors

Dimitris Bouris is a Research Fellow at the European Neighbourhood Policy Chair, College of Europe (Natolin Campus) and the author of a forthcoming book entitled “The European Union and Occupied Palestinian Territories: state-building without a state”(London, Routledge, 2013).

Tobias Schumacher is the Chairholder of the European Neighbourhood Policy Chair, College of Europe (Natolin Campus) and an Associate Senior Research Fellow at the Center for International Studies at the Lisbon University Institute


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