Many in Israel are skeptical about the possibility and urgency of reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians. That skepticism is often based on the assumption that the potential benefits of a peace agreement, even if one were possible, would not outweigh the risks of giving up the status quo. The European Union, so the reasoning goes, could not possibly offer enough to change the equation, and is anyway only a payer and not a player in the Middle East.
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Without wishing to belittle potential short-term risks – including those to security – that any change to the status quo would obviously need to address, consider for a second what the upside of a negotiated agreement could be.
A historic agreement on two states, ending the conflict and resulting in mutual recognition, would dramatically change Israeli and Palestinian lives – for the better. As promised in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, it would immediately lead to Israel’s recognition by the Arab world. This would open possibilities undreamed of, not only in the diplomatic and political arena, but also for Israel’s economy. An end to decades of bloody conflict would be enough in and of itself to justify bold steps toward peace. But peace would also create enormous additional value and put an end to concerns about further isolation. Israel would rapidly become a regional high-tech hub and a bridge between Europe and the Arabian Peninsula. Israel would be in pole position to promote regional integration in the eastern Mediterranean, where stability is vital for fully reaping the benefits of its natural resources. Israel would also significantly improve its ability to create strategic alliances with other countries in the region in ways that would advance its interests.
With the necessary security arrangements in place, Israelis would be in a safer place than they are today. Of course, peace between Israelis and Palestinians would not provide a magic wand to solve all threats to Israel’s security in one fell swoop. But it would contribute to regional security and stability, and provide unexplored avenues for advancing development and growth across the Middle East. Palestinians will have no incentive to resort to violence or terror, which would undermine the boost to their economy, quality of life and national pride that would follow in the wake of a peace agreement and an end to the occupation.
Those who call this vision naïve should ask themselves how realistic it is to continue the current status quo much longer. It is understandable that many Israelis are ready to pay more for housing, food and taxes in order not to see their security compromised. It is understandable that many would rather endure international criticism and even risk growing isolation than risk a bad agreement. The status quo often enjoys the benefit of the doubt – why change a reasonably stable situation? But the truth is that the status quo will not be permanent, and its value is overrated. The main reason for this is that waiting for things to get worse is never a good strategy, as it reduces the options and could eventually leave only bad scenarios. A position of strength, on the other hand, is the best foundation for bold choices.
The EU understands that it is essential for Israel to ensure that the future Palestinian state will not be a failed state. Therefore, all 28 EU foreign ministers have offered an unprecedented and tailor-made package of support for a peace agreement in the form of a Special Privileged Partnership. This could include, depending on Israeli aspirations, enhanced market access or even progressive market integration, security cooperation or institutionalized political dialogue. In short, it could take EU-Israel relations to a level that is next to EU membership, similar to the EU’s relations with Norway or Switzerland. The EU extended a similar offer to the Palestinians, fully aware that there is no one-size-fits-all solution and that the future partnership would be negotiated with both partners according to needs and ambitions, in order to stretch the potential for cooperation to the maximum, including trilateral European-Israeli-Palestinian cooperation. Our key message is: Once you decide to go ahead with peace, Europe will stand by your side to help make peace safe, sustainable and irreversible.
This offer remains on the table. The EU has a long track record of being a reliable and relevant player in the Middle East. The millions of euros we invest in the Palestinian Authority every year are not a humanitarian paycheck, but directly contribute to building a functioning Palestinian state that could be a viable partner for Israel in a peace agreement. Already in 1980, Europe gave voice to the idea of two states based on 1967 lines in its Venice Declaration, which subsequently gained international consensus.
Today, a majority of Israelis and Palestinians have embraced this idea. But they still need to convince each other that their quest for two states is genuine and trustworthy, and that spoilers are in the minority and will not prevail. It could help to think – and speak – more about how a peace agreement, despite the painful compromises required from both sides, would dramatically improve everybody’s lives and future.
Lars Faaborg-Andersen is EU Ambassador to Israel.