The instant reaction of many people when hearing of the decision to award this year’s Nobel Peace Prize to the European Union was one of surprise. One only had to read the many blogs and facebook discussions to see that there were many who questioned this decision, not least those who immediately mentioned Europe’s long history of internal warfare and bloodshed, not least the two World Wars and the atrocities of the Holocaust.

But the award was not, as has been misperceived, to Europe the continent, but to the European Union. It was awarded specifically to an organization of countries which had come together precisely because of the continent’s past history, in an attempt to ensure that the warfare, violence and bloodshed of the past would not be repeated in the future.

Few people believed, back in the 1950s, that the dreams of Robert Schuman and a small group of pro- Europeanists would succeed in uniting the major European powers into a single economic and political entity. What started as a relatively low-scale customs union of six countries at the Treaty of Rome in 1956 has, over a period of almost 60 years, become transformed into an economic and political union of nearly 30 countries.

There are so many positives. Internal borders have been removed, a single European passport exists, there is free movement of labor, and Europe is identified by a younger generation as much by the single European flag with its circle of stars, as are the individual symbols of the separate countries.

And there are negatives too. Europe is undergoing a major financial crisis. The stability of the single Euro currency is in danger. There are many who question whether the EU rushed ahead too quickly in the enlargement process, especially when most of the countries who have joined in recent years have all been economically weak, thus creating a greater imbalance between the “haves” and the “have nots,” despite the EU efforts to bring the poorer regions in line with the more developed as part of its regional policy.

There are some other negatives which have recently reared their ugly heads, not least the tightening of anti-immigration policy from outside the EU and the inability of most countries to come to grips with the growing Islamic populations who have settled in Europe during the past two decades.

This has given rise to a renewal of right-wing, xenophobic political parties and a reported increase in incidents of anti-Semitism in some countries. But it is precisely the strength of a pan-European opposition to a growth in fascism which has enabled European countries to deal with this, where they failed in the period prior to World War II.

DESPITE ITS current economic problems, the current political stability – even in countries experiencing democratic political protest such as Greece and Spain – remains unchallenged. The borders remain, and will remain, open. There is no political fear, threat or tension between any of the member countries. The EU experiment has proved that through a gradual process of economic and cultural unification, and the creation of a common system of laws and regulations relating to human rights, quality of life and standards, peoples and countries who were constantly at war with each other can come together.

By de-emphasizing nationalism, jingoism and exclusivity, and replacing it with a concern for the common daily life concerns of people, regardless of which country they live in, the EU has indeed proved to be one of the greatest peace success stories of the post-WWII era.

This does not, in any way, belittle the many other worthy candidates for this year’s prize (over 100 of them) ranging from individuals to NGOs and to world statesmen and leaders. Over the years, the prize has been distributed to a variety of peace-related people and activities. At the grass roots level, the prize has been awarded to relatively unknown groups and people who have succeeded in reaching out beyond the divide and bringing peoples together at the level of civil society, often in the face of animosity and hatred.

At the governmental level, the prize has been awarded to diplomats and statesmen who have negotiated official peace agreements between countries and societies which have been in bitter conflict for decades, and where it often appeared that there was no hope of resolving bloody and bitter conflicts.

HERE IN Israel, we should not forget the Nobel Peace Prize which was awarded to prime minister Menachem Begin along with presidents Anwar Sadat of Egypt and Jimmy Carter of the US, for the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt. And however shaky this agreement might appear in the wake of the changes in Egypt following the Arab spring, we should not dismiss the relative stability – albeit a cold peace – which has lasted between the two countries for the past 30 years. This situation could not have been dreamt of just a few years previously, in the immediate aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur war.

Nor should we forget the prize awarded to President Shimon Peres, prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and chairman of the Palestinian Authority Yasser Arafat for their signing of the Oslo Peace Accords in 1993 and 1995.

Unlike the peace agreement with Egypt, the Oslo Agreements remained as far as we ever got with the Palestinians, and peace today would seem to be as far away, if not further away, than it was at that time.

In retrospect, the peace prize was awarded too soon, before it could be ascertained whether the Oslo Agreements would result in a real end to conflict. But for a short period of time, there was an air of optimism, a belief that we really could overcome the enmity, make the necessary – but extremely difficult – compromises, and move ahead toward another era.

Despite our huge frustrations at the failure of peace to materialize, the short period of Oslo proved that when there are leaders who are prepared to seek ways of overcoming the obstacles (on both sides) instead of creating new ones, nothing should be considered impossible. At least Peres and Rabin were prepared to seek the way forward back then in the 1990s – which is a lot more than can be said for today’s crop of leaders, both in Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The EU is to be congratulated for receiving a well-deserved honor. Europe is a different continent today than it was 60 years ago, and this is because of the political stability and the peaceful relations which exist within the EU. Today’s EU would have been impossible to imagine 60 years ago, just as a peaceful and stable Middle East might seem impossible to image today. The animosities and hatreds of that time were as great and seemingly impassable as those which exist here in the Middle East today. The political and cultural contexts are vastly different, but the awarding of the prize to the EU is a signal to the world, and especially to us here in the Middle East, that nothing is impossible.

I will be the first to nominate, and congratulate, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu for a Nobel Peace Prize, if and when he makes the bold moves necessary to bring real peace to this troubled region.

The writer is dean of the faculty of humanities and social sciences at Ben-Gurion University and editor of the International Journal of Geopolitics. The views expressed are his alone.

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