ashton Gaza factory AP for gallery.
(photo credit: AP)
It is not difficult to understand the European Union’s determination to play a constructive role in solving the Israel- Palestine conflict.
Generations of European policy-makers have believed that a permanent settlement of this conflict on the basis of a twostate solution is not only vital for the Middle East but, in the words of former EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana, is “fundamental to our own security.”
They have also come to view Europe’s success in transforming its economic power into political influence in the conflict as a key indictor of its capacity to play a role on the international stage.
This has been very apparent in recent weeks when the EU’s representative
for foreign affairs and security policy, Catherine Ashton, rushed to
the region from Washington to shore up the floundering peace talks
following criticism that she failed to raise the international profile
of the recently launched European External Action Service – a new
mechanism designed to give the EU a stronger voice.
Staying put in Paris, French President Nicolas Sarkozy very publicly
announced that after a decade of US failure to bring peace, the EU could
no longer act as “spectators” and could no longer “contribute money and
then be outside the political process.”
Yet the reality is that both Israel and the Palestinians view US
diplomacy rather than European money as the key to a final political
settlement. Time and again, domestic political considerations and
intra-European competition have prevented the consensus and common
policy necessary for effective joint European action in the Middle East.
Europe remains unable to convince Israelis or Palestinians that it has
more to offer them than Washington in the role as mediator, sponsor and
guarantor of peace.
ON TAKING office in 1995, Sarkozy’s predecessor Jacques Chirac demanded
that the EU develop a role in the peace process independent of the US,
and he pressured Yasser Arafat to lend support to his proposal for
restarting negotiations with the EU on an equal footing with the US.
This diplomatic push had little practical impact. Neither did the
European Commission’s demand that the EU participate “alongside” the US
in negotiations on the grounds that Europe was “dwarfing the efforts of
all other donors.”
By 1998, the EU accounted for almost 55 percent of all aid to the PA,
compared to 11% from the US. But this was all but forgotten when US
president Bill Clinton made an official visit to Gaza.
Nabil Shaath, then PA foreign minister, compared Clinton’s trip to
Nixon’s visit to China, and explained that America’s special
relationship with Israel, combined with its special relationship with
the Palestinians, that was “best for the peace process.”
It is not surprising that by mid-2000 the French press was quoting a
gloomy Chirac bemoaning the fact that “the Europeans don’t count in
we must not have any illusions. Clinton is running the whole thing.”
Little has changed in the post-Oslo era.
If current US peace envoy George Mitchell can’t keep the Palestinians
and Israelis talking, then it seems inconceivable that there is anything
the EU can bring to the table that will. So what should Europe do?
Recently Marc Otte, the EU’s special representative for Middle East
peace, looked forward to the day that the EU would be “a full player” in
the politics of the conflict.
But the EU should stop measuring its success in contributing to peace in
terms of its ability to score political points over the US, or gain a
political role commensurate with its economic weight.
Instead it should emphasize its longtime position as the international
community’s lead donor to the PA as well as Israel’s number one trading
Though unglamorous, Europe’s budgetary support for Palestinian
institutions and infrastructure, as well as its humanitarian, refugee
and food aid has been hugely important to sustaining Palestinian
society. It continues to be key to the state-building process.
When a Palestinian state is finally established, the EU will play a
crucial role in doing what it has done best in Europe over the past half
century – promoting consensus and economic cooperation among former
enemies in the interests of regional prosperity and longterm stability.
Europe, Israel and the Palestinians would all be well served if the EU
fully acknowledged the importance of this role, not as a pretext for
political influence, but as an end in itself.
The writer is director of Middle East
and Mediterranean studies at King’s College London. His new book
Inglorious Disarray: Europe, Israel and the Palestinians since 1967 will
be published by Hurst/Columbia University Press in 2011. This article
is published in cooperation with the Common Grounds News Service