Today, the European Union is one of the world’s keenest advocates of the two-state solution. Year after year, the EU continues to channel millions of euros from European taxpayers into various projects in the Palestinian territories focusing on building the institutions of a future state.
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Far from mere realpolitik, European policy-makers take great pride in this endeavour, spearheading what they believe to be a moral struggle for justice for the Palestinians. However, given the dramatic changes on the ground during the past decades, both social and political, clinging on to the same old policy goal from the Oslo era points to political statism – and an EU that is getting out of touch with reality. Brussels has simply been blinded by its own idealism.
While the two-state solution as advocated by the EU was a relevant way of addressing the Israeli-Palestinian nexus some 20 years ago, today, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state no longer constitutes either a realistic alternative, or the most effective way of helping the Palestinians improve their lives – if this is really what the Europeans are seeking to do.
The fact is that the two-state solution no longer constitutes the preferred alternative for the Palestinians themselves, either. Scarred by the many disappointments of their Oslo generation parents, the new generation of Palestinians has formed its own, different, strategy for how to best deal with the situation at hand.
It is indeed regrettable that no Palestinian state has materialized - and there are certain political actors that carry a special responsibility for this not having happened. The EU is not included among them. Nevertheless, the current situation is the way it is, and any serious policy-making must be adapted to what is realistic and feasible here and now. While the EU could very well keep its distant vision of an independent Palestine, Brussels must not ignore the fact that real developments currently point in a very different direction.
If the EU's reluctance to modernize its policies continues, taxpayers will soon be likely to begin asking questions about what actually became of all their tax money which was pumped into the Palestinian state project.
Who were the ones responsible for continuously signing off on such large amounts channelled into institution-building without yielding the desired results – with bleak chances of success already at the outset? Who continued to sign off on all those feasibility assessments – because such assessments are presumably being made on a continuous basis, right? Those in Brussels who take this criticism personally would be advised to start preparing their explanations.
What needs to be done then? To begin with, the European policy-makers must now wake up and face these regrettable facts. Half a century into the Palestinians' nationalist struggle, the Palestinian camp has ended up even farther away from its original goal of becoming a state of its own. Today, seemingly abyssal rifts run between the Palestinian people and its leaders, between the Islamist and secularist blocks, between the old and young generations and, most importantly, between the scattered pieces of land that were once intended to make up the State of Palestine.
Europe also needs to realise that, during this time when the Palestinian side gradually became weaker and weaker, Israel grew, developed and matured as a state. Nowadays, Israel is a booming economy, relatively united in its concerns for national security and tightly allied with the most powerful country in the world.
From a regional perspective, political developments have also moved in Israel's favour. The Sunni Arab states surrounding Israel no longer see in the Jewish state only an intruder to be thrown out, but rather a future and lucrative business partner. Already now, as this is being written, these states are looking for good excuses to begin normalizing their relations with Israel.
Policy-makers in Brussels need to face the painful understanding that Palestine today is a project primarily advocated by the EU itself (together with the old guard in Ramallah). According to recent opinion polls, the majority of Palestinians want to retract from the Oslo accords, do not consider the two-state solution realistic, and believe that the (EU-funded) institutions in Ramallah are malfunctioning and corrupt. Furthermore, the majority of Palestinians consider the Palestinian Authority to be a burden overall, prefer non-violent resistance, and support a broader internationalization strategy, as opposed to direct negotiations.
Evidently, public opinion in the Palestinian territories runs in the opposite direction to the EU's ongoing state-building efforts. In addition to this, more than one third of Palestinians are instead calling for a one-state solution – a single state with equal rights for all citizens. Leading voices in this group also advocate the complete dismantling of the PA – to be replaced by a reformed PLO that can more efficiently serve as the sole political body and voice of the Palestinians.
In terms of concrete policy changes needed on the part of the EU, if it wishes to continue with its strong support of the Palestinians – and really seeks to improve the situation on the ground – it must shift its main focus from state-building to humanitarian aid. In parallel, the EU must also begin working on new policy alternatives to the traditional two-state solution.
Furthermore, instead of only having Fatah as its partner, the EU must begin to talk to all parties in this conflict. The now decade-long isolation and non-speaking policy vis-à-vis Hamas, the group most recently democratically elected to power, should be replaced by mid-level communication, with its first aim to find solutions to the present electricity crisis in Gaza.
It will only be by communicating with all actors that the EU can really make a difference. Such communication should also include acting as a mediator between Fatah and Hamas to mend the political and geographical rifts between the West Bank and Gaza. This work could start by developing the two groups' relations in the fields where there already exists some Ramallah-Gaza cooperation, namely: issues of coordination regarding education, health care and consular matters.
While the two-state solution is not entirely dead, it is not a realistic policy goal at this point in time. In the distant future, it is possible that the sands will shift again so that public opinion and opportunity anew realign with Brussels' preferred solution. Until then, however, the EU must abandon its blinding idealism.
Björn Brenner is a lecturer at the Swedish Defence University in Stockholm and a visiting fellow at Institut Français du Proche-Orient in Amman, Jordan. He has conducted extensive field research in Syria, Jordan, the West Bank and Gaza. His latest book, Gaza Under Hamas: From Islamic Democracy to Islamist Governance, was recently published by I.B.Tauris. Follow him on Twitter: @bjornbrenner