It might have recently been overshadowed by other crises, but the Israeli-Palestinian dispute still simmers dangerously, says PAUL KNOTT
Europe is reluctant to get deeply involved in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. It is distracted by seemingly more urgent issues and tells itself that only the US has any real influence on the matter. But this festering conflict will reignite one day, potentially very soon. Grim recent experience proves that problems on the Middle Eastern side of the Mediterranean do not stay confined there. And Europe has more power than it thinks to prompt a settlement to this explosive issue before it spills over on us too.
Leaving Israeli-Palestinian peace-making largely to the Americans has produced some semi-successes. The most recent was the 1993 Oslo Accords that brought about limited Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. But the Americans have achieved precious little in the quarter century since. Their current half-hearted peace efforts will not succeed either. President Trump exhibits inordinate faith in his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and has appointed him as his Middle East envoy. But the bumptious boy wonder will not be able to solve this complex dispute in the little spare time his multiple other duties allow.
One reason why the peace process has gone nowhere since the early 1990s is that the Oslo Accords inadvertently created a stalemate, rather than the intended stepping stone to the final outcome of two independent states, Palestine and Israel, existing side-by-side. For decades, the international community has considered this two-state solution to be the only viable way of ending the dispute. Mainstream Israeli and Palestinian leaders also back this concept but are doing very little to make it happen.
Oslo gave Palestinian politicians some limited power and (unintentionally) opportunities for personal enrichment, without having to make the sort of painful and unpopular political compromises a full settlement would require. These concessions include accepting that Palestinian refugees will not be able to return in large numbers to places that are within the internationally recognised borders of Israel.
For its part, Israel has perpetuated and exploited the deadlock in the peace process to intensify its illegal occupation of the Palestinian Territories. Its massive programme of building land-grabbing settlements in Jerusalem and the West Bank is a clear contravention of international law.
Both sides’ actions are facilitated by massive external aid donations. According to the US government’s Congressional Research Service, small and affluent Israel, is, astonishingly, the world’s biggest recipient of American overseas aid. The domestic political dynamics in the US mean that there is little that any outsider can do to change this situation.
Conversely, the EU and its individual member states are collectively the biggest aid donors to the Palestinians by far (as measured by the OECD). This money props up the Palestinian authorities. Less directly, European donations to the Palestinians also cushion Israel from the costs of its illegal occupation. They enable the Israelis to rule over the Palestinians and steal their land without bearing any of the financial burden that would normally fall upon an occupying power. The EU is also Israel’s biggest trade partner.
Contrary to what is often claimed, this substantial financial stake gives Europe significant leverage over both parties to the dispute. The real question is how best to use it.
Greater incentives to pursue an agreement need to be imposed on the parties, particularly the Israelis. Their illegal settlement building programme on Palestinian territory has made it much more difficult to achieve the two-state solution. Indeed, we are now perilously close to the point where such a solution becomes impossible because there are more Israeli settlers than can be realistically relocated back into Israel.
The Israeli government appears to believe it can maintain its massive military superiority over the Palestinians, and therefore the occupation, indefinitely. It might be right. But betting the country’s future on being in the ascendency forever is a risky proposition.
Even if Israel’s current leaders’ assumptions are correct, the occupation of the Palestinian Territories is undermining Israel’s founding principles of being both a democracy and a Jewish state. Some Palestinians now advocate giving up on autonomy, in favour of a one-state solution and demanding full Israeli citizenship rights. This would be more just than the present situation. But it would also put an end to Israel as the Jewish majority homeland generations of its people have worked, fought and died to build successfully. The alternative for Israel would be to formalise the apartheid-style system it currently operates in the Palestinian territories, thus destroying its own cherished democratic status. Instead, Israel’s future would be better served by using its position of unprecedented strength to reach a settlement with the Palestinians and end the occupation in exchange for security guarantees.
Europe needs to press Israel harder to pursue a such peace agreement and is doing Israel a disservice by going too gently on it. True friends tell each other the truth, even when they do not want to hear it. Europe has a unique moral responsibility to do right by Israel in the long run, rather than what is currently more convenient. It must never be forgotten that the State of Israel was largely established by people who had fled the Holocaust and earlier pogroms in Europe.
Some observers, particularly on the right, dismiss the role of morality in international affairs. But, in the case of Europe and Israel, it is fundamental. Europe’s historic duty to support Israel should extend to protecting it against its own worst impulses. Sometimes this can be difficult, as the unscrupulous current Israeli government led by Binyamin Netanyahu often falsely equates any criticism of its actions with anti-Semitism. Applying tough love to Israel is particularly challenging for some leading European countries. Germany finds it difficult to do so for obvious, powerful historical reasons and cannot take the lead on this issue. Most other European nations can be less inhibited in pressing Israel to do what is right, in line with our continent’s own strong identity as a bastion of democracy, justice and human rights. Sadly, we are at the point where economic sanctions like those that succeeded against the apartheid regime in South Africa need to be considered. In the first instance, there must be a more thoroughly enforced blanket ban in Europe on goods from Israel’s illegal settlements in the Occupied Territories. This ban should remain in place until an agreement on ending the occupation is reached.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Territories are entering a period of upheaval. President Mahmoud Abbas, also known by the nom de guerre Abu Mazen, is ageing and in poor health. He is already politically weakened by clinging on to power, despite his electoral mandate having expired in 2010. The succession race that is gearing up will accelerate when Abbas leaves the scene.
The jockeying for position has already started in the desperate, besieged Gaza Strip section of the Occupied Territories. Abbas and the mainstream Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) lost control of Gaza in 2006. Gaza has been dominated by the more militant Hamas movement ever since. The ruthless former PLO strongman there, Mohammed Dahlan, recently returned from exile in Abu Dhabi as part of an uneasy truce with Hamas and in readiness to reclaim his authority.
This forthcoming power struggle in the Palestinian Territories could easily lead to renewed violence, both internally and against Israel. There is little support to be gained by advocating greater subservience and moderation towards the oppressor.
Doing everything in its power to promote a peaceful, long-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and prevent it reigniting is firmly in Europe’s interests. Although other crises have attracted more attention over recent years, few issues inflame emotions in the Arab world more than the oppression of the Palestinians and the fate of the holy city of Jerusalem. Both are easily exploited for recruitment by the violent Islamist extremist groups who threaten Europe, as well as the Middle East.
Europe has more leverage over the Israeli-Palestinian dispute than it likes to acknowledge. Security imperatives aside, a changing situation on the ground presents an opportunity for a renewed push for a peace deal. The Palestinians trust European mediators more than the Americans. And if carrots and sticks are required, Europe is extremely well-placed to offer inducements or exert financial pressure on Palestinian and Israeli politicians. These incentives can be targeted to ensure that they start engaging seriously in peace talks again and sort out their differences once and for all.
Paul Knott is a former British diplomat and the author of The Accidental Diplomat; he lives in Switzerland