When the European Union issued its famous guidelines in 2013, which prohibited grants, prizes and funding from the EU to the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, it was hailed by many as a potential game-changer in the over 100 year-old conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Israeli political analysts, from left to right, saw the guidelines as the first actual step against Israel’s occupation to be taken by a major international power.
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Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid wrote at the time that that it was the "biggest scoop" he had ever had. The prominent Israeli commentator, Dan Margalit, commented, "Make no mistake, this is an important document. Not because of its content...Its importance steems from its function as a dangerous stepping stone for further boycotts."
Senior Israeli government officials described the new guidelines as an "earthquake" and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was even quoted in the Israeli press as saying that Israel’s failure to stop the EU from issuing the guidelines represented the biggest failure he had encountered in 30 years of dealing with diplomatic and security issues.
Palestinian commentators, from the PA to Hamas, were generally supportive too of the guidelines, even if many saw them as coming too late and consisting of too little to actually roll back Israel’s occupation.
Today, it is clear that the earth did not shake in Israel and none of the predicted tsunamis arrived.
One year later, Israel signed the Horizon 2020 research agreement (albeit with a face-saving clause stating that Israel did not recognize the EU clause stipulating that the occupied territories were not part of Israel). Later in 2014, Israel agreed to set up different production lines for those chickens raised in the settlements and within the Green Line, after the European Commission implemented a policy of non-recognition of Israeli veterinary supervision beyond the Green Line.
In 2015, after several years of deliberation and hesitation, the EU decided, despite protests from some member states, to start labelling settlement products.
Netanyahu responded by calling the labels "heinous" – a term normally reserved for terror attacks in the political lexicon in Israel. The U.S.-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, which normally combats anti-Semitism, ranked the EU’s labelling of settlement products as the third worst outbreak of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism in the world that year, higher than Palestinian incitement and the threat from Iran.
By 2016, 18 out of 28 EU members had issued business advisories warning businesses of the legal and financial consequences involved in doing business with entities linked to Israel’s occupation.
Israel’s government itself seems to have decided quiet compliance is its best strategy. Just recently, in late 2017, Israel signed the ‘ENI CBC Med agreement’ for cross-border cooperation in the Mediterranean basin, which excluded Israeli projects that originate beyond the Green Line. Except for very minor protests from a maverick politician and two settler groups, no one in Israel or Europe took much notice of that tacit acceptance.
That in itself is bad news for the EU’s differentiation strategy, as it needs overt political confrontation to serve its purpose of putting pressure on Israel to end its occupation. But there is limited appetite and also real opposition from governments and major political parties in some EU member states to confront Israel, and Federica Mogherini, the current High Representative of the EU’s foreign policy, is also widely seen as being against further differentiation measures against Israel.
From a purely normative perspective, the differentiation strategy has been very successful. Many other actors in international politics – from the United Nations Security Council (in Resolution 2334), to the Chinese government, to the leading human rights organizations Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, to American liberal Zionist groups – have all expressed support for the EU’s differentiation strategy or have implemented it themselves.
In addition, and probably encouraged by the EU’s more formal differentiation, there seemed in 2016–2017 to be a growing trend of what might be called more "grassroots differentiation," where the PA, civil society organizations and other activists involved were trying to get organizations like FIFA and companies like Airbnb, PayPal, Hewlett Packard and others to suspend their activities with Israeli entities beyond the Green Line.
Again, the logic behind these measures is to create political confrontations by urging these actors to uphold what the activists perceive to be the internal regulations already mandated by those organizations and companies themselves. This type of grassroots differentiation largely bypasses political establishments and can be exercised through social media and email campaigns by activists outside the Israel-Palestine region.
The differentiation strategy has worked in many aspects and Israel has indeed caved in and accepted several differentiation measures by the EU, but these have changed very little on the ground. This, of course, raises questions about the value of normative power and of having the ability to create international consensus around these kinds of issues.
It is worth remembering that opposition to Israel’s settlements has been a consistent EU policy since 1977, when what was then called the EC, first started to condemn them. Despite the fact that opposition to Israel’s settlements probably is the most consensus-oriented issue of all in international politics, the settlements have grown exponentially over the decades alongside the opposition to them.
This has led leading analysts, like Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group, to argue that differentiation measures that only focus on settlements, and not the Israeli state behind them, are a distraction. They have become a substitute for real pressure, they've become measures that actually help the Israeli government and prolong the occupation, by their implicit assurance that only the settlements - and not the government that creates them - will suffer consequences for their repeated violations of international law.
Thrall then, incorrectly, states that supporters of differentiation reject penalizing Israeli state entities, like Israeli financial institutions, that help and profit from the settlements. But that is exactly what the leading EU think tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), has called for since it first started to publish reports on differentiation in 2015.
Israeli, Palestinian and some U.S. officials, have, for a number of different reasons, continuously tried to connect the EU’s differentiation strategy to the BDS movement, claims which have almost always been repudiated by both EU officials and spokespersons for the BDS movement.
But those repudiations haven’t always been so resonant: Today, 24 U.S. states have enacted legislation against boycotts of Israel, including not just the internationally-recognized Israel within the 1967 borders, but also against what they call "Israeli-controlled territories," another term for the illegal settlements.
Of course, the idea that there is no difference between targeted sanctions of the settlements and the entirety of Israel, and that both constitute an "anti-Semitic" act victimizing the Jewish state, is precisely the line taken by the Israeli government.
As Israel has struggled for five decades now to erase the Green Line, the EU has likewise struggled for almost the same period to reaffirm the Green Line as the border, with some modifications, between Israel and what it hopes will one day be a Palestinian state.
This has been mostly a verbal commitment, with the exceptions of some of the differentiation measures mentioned above and the billions of euros in aid to the Palestinians over the years.
In his first major interview with the Israeli press, the new EU ambassador to Israel, Emanuele Giaufret, was asked whether the EU was planning "more steps in the future against settlement building": he answered, "No."
That, of course, reinforces the perception that the EU’s commitment to end Israel’s occupation and create a Palestinian state will continue to be verbal rather than practical.
It is not that the EU lacks practical tools vis-à-vis Israel. The EU’s economy (in nominal GDP) is more than 50 times bigger than Israel’s, but the EU has chosen not to use its economic leverage against Israel.
This is probably mostly because of American opposition, rather than because of the legacy from the Holocaust, internal division or pro-Israel lobbying. The EU is unwilling to stray too far out of the lines of U.S. Mideast policy. If a U.S. president – be it Obama, Trump or anyone else – would have used all its leverage to force Israel to end the occupation, the EU would actively assist in such a process.
But the EU can’t lead the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in place of the U.S.
With some relatively minor exceptions, the historical record clearly shows that the EC/EU played at best a marginal role, if indeed it was present at all, in the series of important peace negotiations through the years: the 1978-1979 Camp David Accords, the 1993-95 Oslo Agreements, the 1994 Israel-Jordan Treaty, the 2000 Camp David Summit, the 2003 Road map, the 2007 Annapolis conference and the 2013-2014 Obama-Kerry negotiations. There is nothing suggesting that this pattern will change in the Trump era, even if his much-expected peace plan won’t lead anywhere.
A final EU measure on the conflict that might have repercussions – one that falls somewhere between the verbal and the practical - is recognition of the State of Palestine, even before a final status agreement is reached. Some analysts, such as David Makovsky in a recent Haaretz op-ed, contend "a big wave of European countries" will recognize Palestine in 2018. My own diplomatic sources in Europe tell me that things are indeed moving, but it will be more like a small wave of about five European countries may together recognize Palestine, if France takes the lead, but it is not yet certain to happen.
Since Sweden recognized Palestine in 2014 – a move which changed the political climate more in Sweden than in Palestine, with bitter divisions in the Swedish Parliament, a harsh Israeli pushback campaign and massive online hate against Foreign Minister Margot Wallström - it has been rumored many times that other European countries were about to follow.
So far it has not happened, but even if it would, the critical question plaguing the EU for 50 years will still be there, namely: What commitment and capability does Europe really have to help resolve the conflict, end the occupation and create a Palestinian state?
With an EU in relative decline and with the rise of various right-wing, nationalist or populist governments and parties in Europe, many of whom are pro-Israeli and anti-Muslim, it seems that the EU’s commitment and capability to help resolve the conflict is, in fact, far less than it has been – and way below Palestinian expectations.
Anders Persson is a postdoctorate researcher at the Centre for European Politics at the University of Copenhagen. This op-ed is based on research from his recent study EU differentiation as a case of "Normative Power Europe" (NPE) in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, published in the Journal of European Integration.