Europe Can Help, but Israeli and Palestinian Leaders Must Lead

The lack of political will from Israeli and Palestinian leaders can be the biggest obstacle on the road toward peace.

Reuters

Some days leave a mark on your life and your political engagement: November 4, 1995 is one of those days. The news of Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination reminded us of a sad truth. When peace is most needed, when peace becomes a real possibility, the enemies of peace unleash all their hate.

One week after I took office as the European Union’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, I was in Tel Aviv laying a wreath at the Rabin memorial. Since I entered politics, the picture of Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn has always stayed with me, imprinted on my mind. It has served as a constant reminder: Despite all the difficulties and setbacks, we must never lose hope. Things will only get worse if we do not work for change.

Former President Shimon Peres is a man who has never lost hope. “There is a light at the end of the tunnel,” he has repeated, time and again, “there’s just no tunnel.”

We know where we want to get to: two states, in peace and security. But right now there is no open pathway to peace. We need to build one, we need to find an entry point. And as time goes by, our task is getting harder.

The opportunity for a lasting peace is slipping away. It is not simply that both sides are not negotiating. The very goal itself – that vision of two states and the framework agreed in Oslo – are steadily being put beyond reach. I believe we can still save Oslo. Not the dream of Oslo, but the concrete reality that Oslo aimed at. We can finally turn what was written on paper into something real.

Not a religious war

But we need courage from all sides. If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Mahmoud Abbas fail to work together now, they will leave a dangerous future for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

Rabin was fully aware that only peace could bring real security to Israel. But what does “peace” mean today? I know many Israelis and Palestinians ask this question – to themselves, to their leaders and to all of us. I believe putting out the fires is not enough.

Going back to business as usual is not an option – in fact, there is no business as usual to return to. The only way to end this vicious cycle is to move on, toward a negotiated two-state solution, which realizes the legitimate demands of the two peoples. I also continue to believe that Jerusalem can truly live up to its name – the city of peace – as the future capital of both states. Despite all the skepticism, I have heard no viable alternative to that vision.

Today, Jerusalem is suffering again. A war for the holy sites can benefit neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians. This is no war of religion, as President Reuven Rivlin told me the first time we met.

The true division does not run between people of different religious beliefs, but between people of different beliefs on peace, and violence. The narrative of a religious war can only play into the hands of terrorists. It could play into the hands of Daesh (the so-called Islamic State group), strengthen its propaganda, facilitate radicalization and recruitment in the Holy Land. And no one can afford that, today less than ever.

The world we live in is much more complex than 20 years ago, the Middle East much more dangerous. The mix between the conflict in the holy places and newer regional crises could prove explosive. This is not just another chapter in the same old story: it could be the first chapter of a new, tragic era.

We need to keep this in mind as we work to rebuild a “tunnel” toward peace. And the Palestinian and Israeli leaders have to keep this in mind: at this point, they are not just responsible to their own people, but to the region and the rest of the world.

They are not alone in this. The whole region has a major stake in supporting the peace process. In that spirit, and following a European Union initiative, the Quartet principals met with Arab leaders in New York to promote a new regional framework toward peace.

Each nation can play a crucial part – and I am thinking especially of Jordan for the holy sites, Egypt for Gaza, and Saudi Arabia for reviving the Arab Peace Initiative.

But let us be clear: there is little the international community can do if the parties do not accept their own responsibilities.

In New York, we spoke loud and clear about the need for significant policy shifts on the ground, in line with past agreements. To restart the political process, we need a new entry point.

It is time for concrete measures that truly empower the Palestinians to take control over their lives, while upholding Israel’s security.

The lack of political will from Israeli and Palestinian leaders can be the biggest obstacle on the road toward peace. I truly believe that in both camps there is room for political action, although that room is shrinking. The European Union wants to help keep it open. We are already engaging with both sides, and are ready to flesh out political, security and economic measures to support a final deal.

Europe and Israel are not only incredibly close geographically: our peoples share roots, values and culture. And the European institutions are doing their best not to let a new tide of anti-Semitism pull our peoples apart.

During the last war in Gaza, I had the chance to meet David Grossman. He described his feeling that the two peoples are trapped inside a bubble, where they can only find justifications for their own violence. Today, it seems even more difficult for them to burst this bubble, and yet it is even more urgent to do so. This might be the last chance to help the parties get out of it. I believe this is our shared responsibility.

The writer is the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy.