In a recent op-ed in Haaretz (Is Europe More Desperate for a Palestinian State Than the Palestinians?) Björn Brenner argues that, "blinded by idealism", the EU, like no other actor, is wed to a two-state solution to the conflict between Israel and Palestine, a solution that has no chance of coming into fruition and that Palestinians themselves no longer want.
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He declared that the EU is therefore wasting European taxpayers’ money when continuing to invest in the institutions of a future Palestinian state, aid that won't deliver the new state and is ineffective in improving the lives of Palestinians. Instead, the EU should talk to Hamas, broker reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah and cease institution-building support in favour of humanitarian aid to Palestinians.
Few would disagree that prospects for the two states are bleak, but Brenner’s account of facts is incomplete and his recipe for a new EU policy is curious.
He hints at the large elephant in the room, the Israeli occupation, without calling it out when he describes an increasingly weaker Palestine on "scattered pieces of land". In Brenner’s universe, no cause needs to be identified for the current situation, which - mysteriously - "is the way it is".
First the facts. The EU is not alone in its support for the two states. This is still the position of the international community, most recently expressed in Security Council Resolution 2334 on 23 December, 2016, which reiterated "its vision of a region where two democratic States, Israel and Palestine, live side by side in peace within secure and recognized borders."
And Palestinian public opinion? The most recent poll from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PCPSR) of March this year, finds that one third supports and two thirds oppose the one-state solution. Almost half support the two-state solution, but 60% believe that it is no longer viable. There is a strong linkage between believing in its viability and supporting it: most of those who think that there will be two states, support it.
The main reason why Palestinians doubt the viability of a future Palestinian state is the expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied territory. And the Security Council agrees when it states that the establishment of settlements, "without legal validity and a flagrant violation under international law", is a "major obstacle to the achievement of the two-state solution and a just, lasting and comprehensive peace"”. There is a reason for "the way it is", and why Palestinians think as they do.
As Brenner points out, many Palestinians currently view the Palestinian Authority as a burden and are highly critical of how it works. But paradoxically, as shown in earlier PCPSR polls, they also see it as a national achievement, one of the few resulting from the Oslo accords.
So, is it futile for the EU to support building Palestinian institutions if the two-state solution is in doubt? On the contrary. Over the past decades of global climate change, state fragility and conflict we have learnt that what builds a society’s resilience is its institutions. Education, health, social protection, financial services, gender equality, conflict resolution and justice all depend on the presence of institutions at the national and local levels, that include civil society and the private sector.
If the PA is dismantled and its responsibilities taken over by a reformed PLO, the presence of these institutions will be as important as they are today, to provide stability to Palestinian society. And these are functions that can never be provided by life-saving and protection-oriented humanitarian actors, as we have also learned. Preparedness for several possible scenarios with a long-term focus on functioning institutions is what is required from the EU and other donors in Palestine.
Finally, Brenner asks about the outcome of "feasibility assessments" of aid programs in Brussels. They are indeed undertaken on a regular basis both as evaluations of ongoing support and in preparing for new decisions, in Brussels as well as in other donor capitals. But their conclusion is not Brenner’s.
A major evaluation of the EU aid program in 2014 found that much has been achieved in terms of "sustaining welfare for Palestinians, preventing fiscal and economic collapse, compensating for occupation losses, fostering stability and security, and building up capacity". But it has not been able to remove the main obstacle to Palestinian development, the Israeli occupation, with its movement restrictions, strangling of the Palestinian economy and allocation of resources for settlements.
It is only through a clear-sighted and credible use of EU and other political means that the two-state solution can be achieved, not something to be expected from aid programs. Other recent evaluations of Danish and Dutch aid have reached the same conclusion, as have the World Bank, IMF and the UN.
It is curious how a scholar on Palestinian-Israeli political affairs like Björn Brenner can discuss policy options for resolving the conflict while ignoring the large elephant that everybody else can see.
Johan Schaar is the former head of Swedish aid to Palestine in the Consulate General of Sweden in Jerusalem.