Bringing Europe into the Middle East Peace Process

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John Kerry meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, courtesy of U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv/flickr

This article was originally published by the European Council on Foreign Relations on 22 May 2014.

During his trip to South Korea at the end of April, American President Barack Obama announced a “pause” in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, nine months into Secretary of State John Kerry’s flailing initiative. As the plan’s April 29, 2014 deadline approached, progress towards a first framework-agreement remained slow, if not inexistent. Washington hedged its bets on an exchange to prevent the process from complete derailment: the Palestinian Authority’s (PA) acceptance to postpone the deadline for talks, in return for a package making such extension acceptable, including most notably a partial settlement freeze in the West Bank and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s follow up on his July 2013 promise to release a number of Palestinian prisoners.

Yet the arrangement turned sour when Netanyahu reneged on his commitment to release the fourth batch of inmates, prompting PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to initiate a move to apply for accession to 15 international treaties and conventions, against Israeli and American will. To everyone’s surprise, the Palestinian Liberation Organization also proceeded to sign an agreement with Hamas to form a technocrat government tasked to organize elections. In turn, Netanyahu immediately suspended talks.

Who exactly is responsible for this failure? The last several months reveal that both parties have consistently lacked will to engage in a new peace process, instead greeting each phase of the talks with stubbornness. Netanyahu in particular, who branded Kerry’s initiative “weak” despite the United States’ unfettering alignment to his positioning, has always denied that settlements hamper prospects for an eventual two-state solution. Amidst continued housing demolitions and settler violence, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics confirmed in March 2014 that settlement construction across the West Bank increased by a whopping 123 percent since 2012. Adding insult to injury, the Israeli Ministry of Defence approved new settlement construction in Hebron for thefirst time since the 1980s just two weeks later. On the Palestinian side, recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, or accepting its continued occupation, remain out of question.

Against this backdrop, Kerry’s peace efforts had, in reality, few chances of success, beyond his “frantic diplomacy” characterized by incessant trips to the region since 2013. In many respects, the Secretary of State’s tireless attempts to resuscitate an already-moribund process in such abject conditions have been the primary culprit in the talks’ final collapse. Kerry’s April 8 “poof speech” and subsequent reference to Israeli “apartheid,” while trying to save face, ironically translated to his apparent recognition of his plan’s futility in light of the two parties’ patent disinterest. The collapse of the negotiations is also Obama’s own failure, having forcefully condemned settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories since his election, and more specifically in his 2009 Cairo speech, and then done nothing as settlement growth continued apace.

Washington’s laisser-faire attitude towards Israeli obstinacy is one of the main errors underpinning Kerry’s failure and thwarting American diplomacy’s evolution at large. In continuously downplaying Israeli settlement construction and Netanyahu’s brazen disregard for international law—directly destroying hopes for a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines—American officials have alienated Palestinians from the dynamic. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the Hamas-Fatah entente “disappointing,” reflecting Washington’s preference to rest on its empirically disproven strategies.

America’s exclusive reliance on its unilateral leadership and its pretention to act as the sole mediator of an intractable conflict further underscore its many strategic mishaps. Given its close political partnership with Israel, the United States is indeed hardly in a good position to solve the asymmetry inherent to negotiations between the occupier and occupied.

In complete continuity with his predecessors, Kerry side-lined Europe, which Palestinians still perceive as a far more neutral actor. Moreover, in July 2013, precisely at the time the talks were revived, Europe adopted a series of “guidelines” on the eligibility of Israeli entities working within illegal settlements for funding. According to these guidelines, the European Union can no longer fund or dispense awards and grants to companies, institutions and organizations that are active in the occupied territories. Thereby, Europe bestowed itself with an unprecedented capacity for demonstrating to the Israeli government and population relations with Europe would be impacted by and distinct from the occupation. For most Israelis, losing Europe is not a palatable option.

At the same time, European leaders have so far noticeably failed to take advantage of their newfound manoeuvring room. Brussels’ and some EU member-states’ push to label products manufactured in the settlements has struggled to evolve, largely because many European governments remain reticent to clash with Israel. More generally, Europe is grappling with the financial crisis’ aftermath, and now must face turbulence in its immediate neighbourhood, in particular escalating violence in Ukraine and the Syrian civil war’s dire consequences. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not top its current policy agenda, enabling Washington to further monopolize mediation despite its shortcomings.

Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, the United States has stumbled into an endless cycle of “final attempts” at resolving the Middle East conflict, relying on a familiar if occasionally tweaked rhetoric that in fact prolongs negotiations and facilitates Israeli dogmatism without any price to pay. Washington should, without further delay, meaningfully reintegrate Europe into a dialogue from which it has been mostly marginalized. While this multilateral approach might not engender an immediate end to deadlock—a task that ultimately resides in Israeli and Palestinian hands—it would certainly render the process more credible in both parties’ eyes.

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