European arm-twisting (big pic)

Widespread impatience and disaffection with Israel is moving from the people to the decision-makers

A pro-palestinian supporter wears a Palestinian and Union flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London last week. (photo credit: REUTERS)
A pro-palestinian supporter wears a Palestinian and Union flag outside the Houses of Parliament in London last week.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
When the House of Commons called on the British government to recognize Palestine in mid-October, one of the more telling speeches came from Sir Richard Ottaway, the Conservative Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Select Committee.
“The next few minutes will be personally rather painful for me,” he said. “I was a friend of Israel long before I became a Tory.
My wife’s family were instrumental in the creation of the Jewish state. Indeed, some of them were with Weizmann at the Paris conference. The Holocaust had a deep impact on me as a young man growing up in the aftermath of the Second World War, particularly when I paid a visit as a schoolboy to Belsen...”
“I have stood by Israel through thick and thin, through the good years and the bad...But I realize now, in truth, looking back over the past 20 years, that Israel has been slowly drifting away from world public opinion. The annexation of the 950 acres of the West Bank just a few months ago has outraged me more than anything else in my political life, mainly because it makes me look a fool, and that is something I resent...
“Under normal circumstances I would oppose the motion tonight; but such is my anger over Israel’s behavior in recent months that I will not oppose the motion. I have to say to the government of Israel that if they are losing people like me, they will be losing a lot of people.”
Ottaway, a lifelong friend of Israel, remains an outspoken critic of Hamas terror and Palestinian fractiousness. The fact that someone like him, so well versed in and supportive of the Israeli narrative, could feel such bitter letdown is symptomatic of a massive shift in European opinion against Israel. The breakdown of peace talks for which Israel was largely blamed, the continued building in settlements across the 1967 lines and the perceived excesses of the Gaza war have taken a huge toll.
As the House of Commons vote showed, the widespread impatience and disaffection with Israel is swiftly moving from the people to the decision-makers and it is only a matter of time before more parliaments and more governments are affected.
One of the early results is a new political assertiveness in Europe, with governments signaling a wish to play a greater role in any future Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking efforts. There are two avenues in which this could manifest itself: in backing or opposing the Palestinian effort to win statehood through the UN, or in helping to engineer a wider Israeli-Palestinian process in which the Europeans and the region, not only the Americans, actively participate, using what levers they have to press the parties to move forward.
For the past several years Europe has been increasingly ambivalent about Israel. On the one hand there is a genuine desire to work with Israel, a useful trading partner with state-of-the-art technology and science; on the other, a predisposition to use economic and diplomatic clout to express displeasure at the continuing occupation.
The Europeans don’t want to lose Israel; but they do want to press it to end what they see as an illegal, immoral and destabilizing status quo. After the collapse of the American-led peace process and in the new post-Gaza reality, Europe is looking to strike a more effective balance.
The first expression of Europe’s newfound assertiveness came from Sweden. In early October, Sweden’s newly installed Prime Minister Stefan Lofven declared that Stockholm would recognize Palestine irrespective of the outcome of peace talks with Israel. The move was not only aimed at Israel/Palestine.
It was also meant as a declaration of independence from Washington. “The US doesn’t decide our policy,” Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom asserted bluntly.
THIS WAS quickly followed by the overwhelming UK parliamentary vote (274-12) urging the British government to recognize Palestine. Although non-binding, the vote had moral weight and could well be acted on if Labor, which spearheaded the motion, comes to power in the May 2015 election. In the debate, several speakers argued that the US was too close to Israel and that Britain/ Europe needed to join negotiations to create a more even playing field. Many insisted that statehood for Palestine was not a gift for Israel to confer, but an unconditional Palestinian right.
The next day French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius declared that if negotiations failed, France would recognize Palestine. In other words, Israel would not be able to defer recognition of Palestinian statehood indefinitely by dragging its feet.
A week later the Irish upper house, the Seanad, passed a motion calling on the Dublin government to “formally recognize the State of Palestine and do everything it can at the international level to help secure a viable two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Averil Power, the opposition Fianna Fail senator who introduced the motion, echoed pervasive European distrust of the current Israeli government’s peacemaking posture. Recognition, she insisted, “is not an Israeli bargaining chip for them to play in their sham negotiations.”
What all this adds up to is impending European pressure on Israel and European insistence on a seat at a broader peacemaking table. With America as the sole mediator unable to deliver the goods, the European moves to recognize Palestine herald an internationalization of the peacemaking process.
This is something the Palestinians have been pushing for some time. In Israel, too, there have been voices calling for an international peace conference. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself has spoken of a need to bring in moderate regional players like Egypt, Jordan and the Saudis.
The choice for Israel could be internalization of the process with its participation – through reengagement with the Palestinians in a broader format – or without – as the Palestinians move unilaterally for recognition through the UN and by joining more international organizations and treaties.
It is true that in the battle for public opinion, Israel often gets the short end of the stick. The organizational cultures of many Western news outlets are permeated with inherent anti-Israel bias. This creates the false consciousness reflected in the many distortions in both the British and Irish parliamentary debates. But it is also the case that Israel deserves much of the criticism it gets.
It cannot deny that it has been an occupying power for 47 years; that it is building in areas supposedly subject to negotiation; and that it has been guilty of disingenuousness and obstructionism in the peacemaking process.
At the heart of Israel’s current discord with Europe is a clash between a universal humanist Zionism in tune with Western demo - cratic values and a nationalistic Zionism that is out of step with them. On the nationalist side, there is Bayit Yehudi’s religious messianism, Yisrael Beytenu’s anti-Arabism and Likud’s assault on the Supreme Court – all of which threaten to undercut fundamental democratic values.
This, together with the ongoing occupation, is making it increasingly difficult for liberal Europeans to support Israel. The problem for Israel could become far more acute if this value-based disaffection were to spread to liberal America. Indeed, as Israel moves further to the right Western disaffection grows, creating a vicious circle that could pose a real threat to Israel’s future.
The European approach to Israel has been one of carrot and stick, seeking trade and good diplomatic relations with a vibrant, innovative and pro-Western Israel, while acting to alter the situation in which a nationalist-driven Israeli government continues to occupy Palestinian land and people.
OVER THE past few years, the Europeans have taken a number of significantly pro-Israel economic steps. In July 2012, the EU granted Israel increased access to its single market; in October that year the European Parliament ratified a framework agreement to facilitate the import of Israeli manufactured goods; and in April 2014, Israel was admitted as the only non-European participant in Horizon 2020, Europe’s paramount research and innovation program, albeit on condition that European funds would not finance research in any way connected with the occupied territories.
As a peacemaking incentive, the Europe - ans also promised both Israel and a future Palestinian state an unprecedented package of political, economic and security benefits, as well as closer cultural and scientific links, if they reached a final peace deal.
In Israel’s case, however, there were also significant sticks. In July 2013, the EU published new guidelines for business with Israeli entities active across the Green Line and for labelling products originating in the set - tlements. If strictly adhered to, the guidelines could affect Israeli banks and other business - es with branches in the West Bank. For now the Europeans operate through a system of “Special Purpose Vehicles,” Israeli subsidiaries that shield EU financial instruments from direct dealings with Israeli firms that have business in the West Bank. Although this system enables business to continue, it leaves Israeli firms active in the West Bank in a vulnerable position.
In early October, the EU warned Israel that certain actions across the Green Line could have consequences, for example, building in the controversial Givat Hamatos, Har Homa and E-1 areas, which it argued could jeopardize the contiguity of a future Palestinian state.
European punitive reaction could take economic or diplomatic form. For example, there are three European countries on the 15-member UN Security Council, Britain, France and Luxembourg, with Luxembourg due to be replaced by Spain in January. If any or all were to side with the Palestinians, their chances of securing the nine endorsements necessary to force a vote on their recognition resolution would be considerably higher.
Israel would then need an American veto to block it.
In the Israeli view, the talk of early European recognition of Palestine is misguided in that it encourages the Palestinians to believe that they will be able to get statehood on their terms without having to negotiate with Israel. In other words, if the aim is to bring serious negotiations closer, it will almost certainly prove counterproductive. Moreover, Netanyahu is not too worried about concert - ed European action. The Israeli experience has been that Europe’s bark is far worse than its bite.
Indeed, despite Europe’s newfound assertiveness, when it comes to Israel-Palestine the US remains the key international player. But US-Israel ties are no longer as cozy as they once were. America’s anger at the Netanyahu government’s perceived recalcitrance and its continual picking on US Secretary of State John Kerry was reflected in the administration’s refusal in late October to grant visiting Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon meetings with Vice President Joe Biden, National Security Adviser Susan Rice and Kerry. As a result, American readiness to pressure Israel is greater than it has been for years.
There is a strong feeling in both the US and Europe that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be resolved or at least tempered. In their view, it impacts on regional extremism which they now see threatening them. Furthermore, they don’t want to see the huge sums invested in rebuilding Gaza going down the drain in new hostilities every few years.
The status quo cannot continue, says Kerry. And France’s Fabius talks in terms of an imposed solution. A new broad-based international initiative is brewing and will gather pace after the US mid-term election in early November.
In the coming months, Israel could find itself caught in a vise with Europe and America both pushing for movement toward the establishment of a Palestinian state – one way or another.