What role can Europe play in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? This question has been asked so many times that it has grown similar to Sigmund Freud's famous question of what a woman wants. But the fact remains that, as the world’s largest bloc of liberal democracies, the European Union – with its 28 member states – can legitimize or delegitimize many aspects of international affairs. This is certainly true in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, where the United States is seen as a biased mediator toward Israel. The European Union could provide a crucial middle ground between Israel, the U.S., perhaps Canada and a few Pacific islands on the one hand, and the Palestinians and their supporters – primarily Muslim and Non-Aligned countries – on the other.
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Historically, the European Union (and its predecessor, the European Community) has successfully legitimized many aspects of a future Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. These include Palestinian rights in the 1970s (that the Palestinians were a people, that they had a common national identity and that they deserved a homeland); Palestinian self-determination in the '80s; Palestinian statehood in the '90s and a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem in the 2000s. All sides involved in the conflict, including the Palestinians themselves, often railed against these ideas when they were first issued. The Americans, on their part, said that these EC/EU statements did not reflect U.S. policy. Today, as everyone can see, they form a significant part of a future two-state solution, if there ever is to be one.
The European Union's power to play a decisive role in the conflict became even clearer in 2011 and 2012, when the United Nations voted on admitting Palestine as a non-member observer state. There, EU member states quickly emerged as the crucial players who would decide whether the bid would fail or succeed. Before the Palestinians were to submit their application to the United Nations in 2011, an anonymous Israeli official told the International Crisis Group that while the United States was “the key to the effective exercise of power,” Europe was “the key to international legitimacy,” for only it could “confer legitimacy.”
Many other states in the world, especially other democracies, look closely at how the EU countries act, vote and speak in various international forums regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Israel refers to this group of countries – the 28 EU members plus a dozen or two other liberal democracies, including the U.S., Canada, Norway, Switzerland, Japan, Australia and New Zealand – as the “moral majority” of states in international affairs. As such, their support is crucial for Israel, both because it wants to be part of this group of liberal democracies and because much of the rest of the world are longtime supporters of the Palestinians.
The 2013 EU guidelines against the settlements – arguably the most significant EU action in the conflict since the 1980 Venice Declaration, which had called for Palestinian self-determination and talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization – are perhaps the best example of how, in practice, the European Union works to set the standard of legitimate international policy vis-à-vis Israel-Palestine. The guidelines were never about money, neither for Israel nor for the European Union, but about setting an example that others would follow in delegitimizing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. The guidelines were the first significant declaration ever by a major international actor against the settlements, and prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to say that Israel's inability to stop the European Union from issuing the guidelines represented his country's biggest diplomatic failure since he entered politics three decades ago. For those of us following the conflict from Europe, Netanyahu’s comment proved that the European Union can be as much of a “player” as it wants in the conflict instead of just being a “payer,” funding an increasingly irrelevant ”peace process" that everyone can see is leading nowhere.
Besides its power to legitimize a solution to the conflict, the European Union, as Israel’s biggest trading partner, has tremendous economic power that it can use against Israel. The settlement guidelines are just one of several signs that the European Union is becoming more ready to use its contractual agreements with Israel as sticks rather than carrots.
If all EU members would follow Sweden and recognize a Palestinian state, it would put enormous pressure on the United States to follow suit. My research clearly shows that the European Commission/European Union has played an historical role in the conflict by formulating new policy departures that were later adopted by the United States, the Arab League and others, when they were seen as less controversial. All of the ideas articulated in the EC/EU declarations, perhaps with the exception of openly advocating East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, have later been adopted by the United States as official policy. Some are official Israeli policy too; even Benjamin Netanyahu now sees the Palestinians as a people with a distinct nationality, deserving some kind of limited statehood.
Israeli politicians, left and right, spoke very differently about the Palestinians a few decades ago and so did most Arab/Palestinian leaders about Israel. It can also be argued that EU declarations have contributed to making the Arab/Palestinian side more moderate in their demands against Israel. The best example of this is the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which looks much more like a typical EU declaration on the conflict than anything the Arab/Palestinian side has previously put forward.
History clearly shows that EU policies that are seen as outlandish at their inception have later been broadly accepted as consensus. Even if a solution to the conflict seems far away today, and a Palestinian state may never come into being, it is important to underscore the enormous potential for the European Union to create an international consensus for resolving the conflict.
Anders Persson is a political scientist at Linnaeus University, Sweden. He is also expert commentator on the Middle East on Swedish TV and radio. His latest book The EU and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 1971-2013: In Pursuit of a Just Peace was recently published by Lexington Books in the United States.