New start: The case for EU leadership in the peace process

Europe, in particular, has a unique opportunity to assertively engage in the region and revitalize the Peace Process.

March 13, 2012 22:39
4 minute read.
PA PM Fayyad with EU foreign policy chief Ashton

PA Prime Minister Fayyad with EU Catherine Ashton 311 (R). (photo credit: REUTERS/Thierry Roge)

In an era in which the Middle East is in a period of great flux, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to be at a standstill with no prospect of change. Although the West continues to seek a way to overcome this impasse, the United States has been unable to bring both sides to the table for meaningful negotiations. Moreover, recent polls suggest the US has lost a great amount of legitimacy in the Arab World. We must thus move away from the notion that the US is indispensable in bringing the Palestinians and the Israelis to the negotiating table. In this context, the European Union (EU) has an opportunity to become a more prominent figure in mediating the conflict and advancing the moribund peace process.

From Tunis to Manama, no part of the Arab world will remain unchanged in the coming years. Thus, it is naïve to think the Palestinian people will idly sit back and continue to accept poor living conditions and the occupation while populations throughout the region have risen up to seek a better quality of life and a freer political system. Furthermore, the Israeli people may grow weary of a peace process that has yet to deliver a lasting peace. In this light, change can and should be expected.

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The EU would be wise to capitalize on the regional political situation and publicly begin an engagement campaign with the goal of finally brokering a peace agreement. Through the Quartet, it has attempted to breathe new life into the peace process by giving the parties deadlines for negotiations. However, the most significant contribution to peace that the EU could make is issuing a unanimous and united resolution that lays out key principles that all 27 EU member states agree upon.

This resolution should support Palestine as a non-member observer state at the United Nations based on the pre-1967 borders. French President Nicolas Sarkozy already suggested such a course of action at the UN in September. Such a strategy would provide a united and authoritative recognition of the pre-1967 boundaries as the basis for the permanent borders between Israel and Palestine, and could bring about an acceptable compromise to the diplomatic standoff regarding the Palestinian bid for statehood.

The Israeli settlements and the barrier in the West Bank should once again be condemned for their illegality under international law. The International Court of Justice, most UN member states and even the US have criticized these policies.

The resolution should also reaffirm that violent extremism is not to be tolerated, and that Israel’s security is an absolute priority. Such a statement would serve to further delegitimize violent strategies, such as those of Hamas, and reward pacific and political solutions.

If these core statements were agreed upon, the EU would send a strong, unified and pragmatic message to both sides. More importantly, it could potentially jumpstart the peace process.

However, why is such a bold and engaging strategy necessary? Unfortunately, American power in the Middle East is diminishing, and trust in its foreign policy is basically non-existent. Its eight-year war in Iraq, its support of Arab dictators, and its staunch and unyielding support of Israel are some of the main reasons for its steep decline in Arab opinion.

A recent opinion poll by the Arab American Institute Foundation confirmed this notion. In countries such as Egypt and Jordan (seen as necessary allies in the peace process), only five percent and 10%, respectively, have favorable views toward the US. In all countries polled, most see US interference in the Arab World and the continuing occupation of Palestinian lands as the main obstacles to peace and stability in the Middle East, and only 12% believe that the US contributes to peace and stability in the region.

Furthermore, over 50% of the population in each country polled believes that the Obama administration has in fact worsened the prospects for peace between Israel and Palestine. Many of these figures are lower now than they were by the end of the Bush administration. They point to an obvious loss of legitimacy by the US in the Arab World.

The EU, on the other hand, does not have the tainted legacy the US has in the region. The support by many European leaders for the masses during the Arab Spring has indeed resonated well with Arab populations. In post-Gaddafi Libya, French President Nicolas Sarkozy and English Prime Minister David Cameron were the first Western leaders to visit the nation. France, for example has a 54% approval rating, and Sarkozy a 53% approval rating (over 40% higher than Obama) in the Arab countries polled.

Moreover, the EU is the biggest aid donor to the Occupied Palestinian Territory with an annual sum of 295 million, and 4.26 billion since 1994. This aid has directly supported development programs, humanitarian relief, refugee assistance and financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority.

The image of the EU is in direct contrast with that of the US, and thus it can be seen as a legitimate, unbiased and untainted power broker. US presence in the peace process will, of course, not disappear. However, its significance and legitimacy is diminishing, and other actors such as Turkey, the Gulf States and the EU are becoming increasingly important in regional affairs. Europe, in particular, has a unique opportunity to assertively engage in the region and revitalize the Peace Process.

The writer is an independent policy analyst with a focus on the Middle East. He studies International Affairs at Northeastern University. A version of this article first appeared in The Diplomatic Courier.

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