Critical Currents: The European connection

Critical Currents The E

jerusalem anti haredi rally 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
jerusalem anti haredi rally 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
The status of Israeli-Palestinian relations depends more on the fate of health reform in the United States than on any other factor - or so conventional wisdom here has it. This approach suits the present Netanyahu government's strategy well: It allows for ongoing diversions in the hope of delaying - and perhaps ultimately obviating - any serious movement on a viable political settlement. But it completely disregards the changing international climate in general and the new currents emanating from Europe in particular. The US without a doubt has played in the past and continues to play a lead role in determining the terms and the pace of progress toward resolution of the conflict. It is not, however, the only player. Increasingly Europe, for many years content to take a back seat to Washington, is becoming a more vocal political (as well as economic and security) actor. This is being done with American foreknowledge, if not actual encouragement. Any Israeli government which really cares about ending the occupation and bringing about the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel would greet this development as an opportunity and not a threat. It's a shame (albeit predictable) that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his key advisers see it otherwise. ALTHOUGH THE European Union was the first Western body to formally endorse the two-state solution in its groundbreaking Venice declaration some 30 years ago, since the Madrid Conference and the launching of the Oslo process its involvement has been more economic than substantive. The creation of the Quartet only solidified the informal division of labor between its members, with the US coordinating the diplomatic effort and overseeing security matters jointly with the other partners and Europe bankrolling these activities. But 2009 may prove to be a significant turning point in these arrangements. The first indication of a change in the nature of European policy came during the spring, with growing expressions of discontent with Israel's comportment during and after the Gaza offensive on both the public and the official levels. The foreign policy spokespeople in various European capitals and in Brussels, alarmed not only with the extent of the humanitarian calamity but also with the nonchalant expectation that Europe, once again, would obligingly foot the bill for reconstruction, began to speak out. As Chris Patten, the former European commissioner for external affairs, put it in an op-ed published in the Financial Times on December 15: "At present, international donors meet most of the bill for the consequences of occupation that should be met under the Geneva Convention by Israel. Over the last year, the cost to the EU and its members has risen to about 1 billion euros. How long can donors justify this expenditure? If Israel continues, as its prime minister says it will, to build settlements, making an agreement on a viable Palestinian state all but impossible, should the international community simply shrug its shoulders and write more checks?" The second sign of a real shift appeared in the summer, when mounting frustration over the new government's foot-dragging on President Barack Obama's demand for a settlement freeze threatened to totally stymie the resumption of negotiations. While the US continued to press and the UN pushed, Europe - through its then foreign policy chief Javier Solana - suggested that unless discussions recommenced forthwith, it might be necessary to have the UN Security Council recognize Palestinian independence and grant its leaders international legitimation without an agreement between the parties. The Solana plan was the first official proposal that went beyond the parameters created in Oslo and echoed in the road map and the Annapolis process. The third hint of change in European strategy came in the form of a report on east Jerusalem prepared by the heads of EU missions in the city. Promulgated in late November, this scathing critique of Israeli policy - which centered on Jewish settlement in the heart of Palestinian neighborhoods in the city, on house demolitions and on the circumscription of cultural and educational activity - was signed by 21 diplomatic missions (including the Netherlands, Germany and the Czech Republic, considered to be Israel's most stalwart supporters on the continent). IT IS hardly surprising that attention therefore came to focus on the EU foreign ministers' comprehensive statement of policy on Palestine and Israel, adopted unanimously barely two weeks ago. The final draft, a somewhat modified version of the original text proposed by the Swedish foreign minister, Carl Bildt, nevertheless constitutes the most significant formal European declaration on the conflict in years. It not only calls for the urgent resumption of negotiations within an agreed time frame, but also makes explicit that any changes in the 1967 boundaries must be adopted by agreement. Pointedly, it invokes the gist of the report of the heads of missions on Jerusalem and, for the first time, talks about the city as the capital of two states. Israeli efforts to further water down the document or thwart it entirely failed. Germany and France, considered to be Netanyahu's allies in Europe, willingly went along with the final wording. Clearly, good chemistry between leaders does not dim positions, nor can Israel's divide and dilute approach to Europe carry the day when external impatience is growing daily and European concerns are rising exponentially. The quest for a more assertive European role on the Palestinian-Israeli front is not only a function of the coalescence of a sense of urgency on the waning prospects of implementing the two-state scenario and a growing apprehension regarding the threats posed by its alternatives. It is also very much an indication of major shifts within Europe in the wake of the ratification of the Lisbon treaty. The declaration of the foreign ministers leaves a pointed legacy to Catherine Ashton, the incoming high representative for Europe's common foreign and security policy, regarding both basic positions and the activist role that its member-states want to play in the coming months. In fact, in her first major speech on the topic, she reaffirmed her intention to promote the principles enunciated in the joint statement. The implications of this European shift are twofold. First, Europe, speaking increasingly in one voice despite attempts to argue the contrary, is set to become a much more prominent player on Israeli-Palestinian matters - not only because its constituents want it, but also because Obama is truly committed to such forms of regional cooperation. Second, the new Europe has flagged the contours of the endgame and declared its dedication to promoting this outcome. In the near future it will, in all likelihood, flesh out the steps that should be taken to achieve this goal. For Israel, therefore, it will be much more difficult to continue to play Europe and Washington against each other or to sidestep the messages being conveyed by the Quartet. If it wants to keep ducking historic decisions and ignoring international entreaties, it will not look favorably on these developments. But if, indeed, Israel wants an agreement, it has a reenergized and more determined partner in Europe. The choice, once again, is in our hands.