Two very strong assumptions have governed much international diplomacy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the past decades. The first is that the solution is known, so all that is necessary is strong leadership—and U.S. determination—to arrive at that goal. The second is that European action is not likely to have much independent effect, so Europe can at best only support American efforts.
The unhelpfulness of the first assumption is now apparent to all but a few diehards. That makes it an especially important time to demolish what remains of the second assumption. This is not to suggest that Europeans can succeed where Americans have failed. Rather, Europe might be able to have some long-term positive effects in precisely those areas where the United States has decided not to go. This conclusion flows not from unrealistic optimism but from a hard-nosed look at the past.
Europe’s Real Contribution
First, some surprising history.1 Seen from a day-to-day or a year-to-year perspective, the conflict seems to involve many euros but very little Europe. High-level diplomacy is monopolized by the United States. International structures such as the Middle East Quartet, which brings together the UN, the United States, the EU, and Russia, seem designed more to humor Europe and to contain it; it is Europe’s wallet that is attractive, not its energy or ideas.
It would be hard not to be cynical about Europe’s possible role. European states and institutions are hardly angelic players. They have their own material and security interests. And they are often acting in tension with each other; when they manage to coordinate, it is through a very cumbersome process.
However, from a decade-to-decade perspective, many of the main ideas for settling the conflict were incubated in Europe before they became common diplomatic wisdom. Most notably, the two-state solution that now is touted as the “known solution” was one that U.S. officials found literally unspeakable for many, many years. Not so in Europe. The first time that the European Community, the precursor to the EU, tackled the question was with its 1971 Schumann Document, which proposed the creation of demilitarized zones, the Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, and the internationalization of Jerusalem.
In 1973, at the onset of an energy crisis brought on by an Arab oil embargo and production cutbacks, the European Community issued two statements. The first called for a ceasefire between the conflicting parties. The second condemned Israel’s acquisition of land through force and included the requirement that any peace plan take into consideration the “legitimate rights” of the Palestinian population. In 1977, the European Council meeting of heads of state and government in London introduced the idea of a Palestinian “homeland” as part of the solution to the conflict. When the 1978 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt promised a diplomatic process to discuss the Palestinian issue, some Europeans wished to press forward by sketching out some ideas.
The Venice Declaration of 1980 laid the basis for the first concrete and clear EU policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and set the parameters for a future Middle East peace process. The declaration was in part a reaction to the failure of U.S.-sponsored talks to take off. The document supported the Palestinians’ right to self-determination, rejected any unilateral initiative to change the status of Jerusalem, insisted on the illegality of Israeli settlements under international law, and called for the Israeli withdrawal from the territories occupied in 1967. Last but not least, it urged the inclusion of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), then boycotted by both the United States and Israel, in negotiations.
The Venice Declaration can be considered an important factor that effectively shaped the international community’s approach to the conflict, transforming it from a refugee problem into a question of self-determination. The effect was hardly immediate. The U.S. reaction was unfriendly and Israel’s even harsher. But viewed from the vantage point of today, the declaration seems more like a visionary effort to set the foundations of the two-state solution and what came much later to be embraced as the “known solution.” And the inclusion of the PLO—a step seen as radical in 1980—became the foundation of the Oslo process.
That process itself began in Europe and was brought to U.S. attention only when it stood on the brink of a breakthrough. And, indeed, when the Oslo process began to die after the target date for a final status agreement came and went, the EU went further. With the Berlin Declaration in 1999, the EU expressed its readiness to recognize a Palestinian state “in due course.” By doing so, the EU sought to keep the diplomatic process alive and forestall a collapse of diplomacy with an idea—a two-state solution—that the United States pointedly refused to endorse. Only in 2002 did then president George W. Bush move U.S. policy forcefully into line with a vision of “two states, living side by side, in peace and security.”
At the height of the second intifada, the EU’s Seville Declaration of 2002 introduced specific details of a final status solution. In the same year, the Danish Presidency of the EU drafted what it termed the “road map,” a document designed to provide the basis for stopping the violence and renewing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations toward a two-state solution. The United States accepted the provisions of the road map, which the Quartet also halfheartedly endorsed.
The EU attempted to lead further in 2009, after the failure of the U.S.-sponsored Annapolis Conference to establish a Palestinian state by the end of 2008. In its EU Council conclusions, the EU summarized all the parameters that it had adopted over the years and on which a future solution should be based. What is noteworthy here is the Quartet’s own statement three months later, in March 2010. Hillary Clinton, then U.S. secretary of state, found herself signing up to a statement that was far closer to the EU’s 2009 effort than even the vague, repudiated endorsement of Palestinian statehood she had made over a decade earlier. Similarly, in 2011, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke of final borders as being based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, further echoing the 2009 EU statement.
In light of this history, it is not clear why the United States is regarded as the leader in diplomacy and Europe as the follower. After all, the first real Israeli-Palestinian breakthrough came through the Oslo process and not through the 1991 U.S.-led Madrid Conference, which sought to revive peace talks. When it comes to active negotiations, the Americans are generally unwilling to share the steering wheel, and the Europeans have generally ceded it. But when it comes to the contours of diplomacy, the EU has shown real ability to feed the international community with ideas as well as to play a catalytic role in agenda setting, even if these ideas are not always applied on the ground.
What Might Be Incubated Now?
Yet this may not be the time for a new Venice Declaration that lays out an image of a settlement. The path that the EU has led for over a quarter century now appears blocked. It is difficult to envision a clear alternative to a comprehensive settlement any time soon. This is, at best, a time for reconfiguring the ways various actors approach the issue in the hope of rendering the conflict more tractable and amenable to a solution at a later stage.
That makes fresh ideas all the more necessary. Any European effort should aim not at imposing a new vision but at allowing one to emerge and at avoiding the further entrenchment of a very problematic set of political realities. That effort might facilitate the incubation of some ingredients to a fresh approach. Based on past European positions, there are six steps the EU could take to help contribute to such conditions.
Take Palestinian Reconciliation Seriously
Palestinians cannot act coherently as long as the two halves of the Palestinian political system in Gaza and the West Bank are locked in bitter rivalry and the vestiges of the PLO lie in ruins. The U.S.-EU approach of dealing only with the West Bank leadership has clearly failed. Europe could lead the world in fostering, rather than resisting, Palestinian reconciliation. Further, by insisting that such reconciliation be coupled with empowering a broader revival of Palestinian participation and involvement in genuine elections, Europe might help ensure that a unified Palestinian leadership is responsive to popular needs and not paralyzed.
In the EU Council conclusions of May 2014, the EU demonstrated its willingness to engage with a new Palestinian government led by the president of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas. That government would be composed of independent figures who would uphold the principle of nonviolence and accept previous agreements and obligations regarding a negotiated peaceful settlement. Moreover, the conclusions welcomed the prospect of democratic elections for all Palestinians.
Use Diplomacy as a Tool, Not as a Reward
Rather than viewing diplomacy as something used to reward actors—especially on the Palestinian side—who mouth the right words in advance, it can be used as a tool to coax parties into international discussions who have stood outside in the past. The argument for excluding Hamas because it retains an armed wing is a plausible one—except that Israel itself “negotiates” with Hamas over violence, as in the case of the 2008 ceasefire between Israel and Gaza or the 2011 deal to free captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit in exchange for a massive prisoner release.
There is no reason to include attacks on civilian targets in negotiations while excluding normal diplomatic issues. Nor is there any reason to cut off all contact with parties that reject past agreements—otherwise not only Hamas but also many Israeli ministers would have to be ostracized.
Treat the Occupation as an Occupation
Israeli control of the West Bank and its domination over Gaza constitute an occupation; nothing is gained by ignoring this reality. The U.S. approach is to use the word “occupation” but apply none of the relevant international standards and legal frameworks for fear they might divert energies from negotiations. That line may have been a mere mistake during the Oslo process, but it seems absolutely delusional now.
In this direction, the EU declared in May 2012 that it would fully and effectively implement its existing legislation and bilateral arrangements applicable to products from Israeli settlements. In December of the same year, EU ministers went further and declared their “commitment to ensure that—in line with international law—all agreements between the State of Israel and the European Union must unequivocally and explicitly indicate their inapplicability to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967.” The outcome of these declarations was the publication in July 2013 of EU guidelines that specified that Israeli entities located beyond the country’s 1967 borders would no longer be eligible to apply for EU funding under European programs.
Legalize the Conflict
More generally, the U.S. approach has been to treat international law and diplomacy as if they were two mutually exclusive realms. As long as a diplomatic process existed—and there has been one, however feeble, for decades—the United States has resisted introducing any international legal standards. That has not only weakened the Palestinians but also robbed the conflict of any context or governing framework.
It should also be noted that insisting that the conflict be carried out through internationally sanctioned tools and methods does not work totally to Israel’s disadvantage: Palestinian targeting of civilians, which has done so much to undermine Israeli confidence in diplomacy, is a gross violation of international legal standards. A first step might be a more assertive insistence on convening the parties to the Fourth Geneva Convention on humanitarian protection for civilians in a war zone.
Focus on Individual Rights
Both the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships have focused on the rights of states and peoples; the rights of individuals have dropped out of consideration. Introducing a focus on individual rights can help highlight how unhealthy the current situation is and buttress the search for alternatives.
Deal With Societies, Not Just With Leaders
There is much despair among Palestinians and resignation among Israelis. But while the two leaderships are generally characterized by obstinacy, there is sometimes more creativity and imagination from various nongovernmental organizations. The United States has interacted with and supported a variety of groups in Palestine—so long as they survive vetting for any connection to terrorism—but often as a way of buttressing the existing process. U.S.-Israeli interaction is extremely close on many intellectual and institutional levels.
But European actors have cast the net far more broadly and have been far less constrained in whom they meet and support. Much of the internal incubation of fresh approaches, especially on the Palestinian side, comes in forums that have European support. When new ideas are introduced into international discussions, there is often a far broader interest in European circles than in the United States, where the leadership and public debate are more narrowly focused.
These ideas do not sound radical. From a European perspective, they are not; they are consistent with the stance taken by European actors in the recent past. But from Washington’s viewpoint, they are not simply rejected, they are close to illegal because of the way U.S. legislation has been written. If Europe strikes out in these directions, it will not find an enthusiastic American follower—at least not at first.
How Will Other Parties React?
The United States has made clear that it regards itself as the chief diplomatic interlocutor between Israelis and Palestinians. Europeans have accepted a position in which they are treated as either supporters or observers. On both substantive and procedural grounds, the U.S. leadership is likely to be resistant and resentful of European incubation of these ideas.
Israel is likely to be even more suspicious than the United States. Its leaders simply do not trust any European role in the short term. For instance, the idea of diplomatic contact with Hamas is resisted less on principle (Israel, after all, does negotiate indirectly with the movement) and more because Israel does not trust Europe to protect Israeli security and interests in such contact. For the Israeli leadership, it is the nature, not the fact, of the contact that draws fear. The best way to ensure that diplomatic contact does not cross Israeli redlines is to discourage it from taking place altogether or to restrict it to secret mediation by intelligence agencies when it serves a specific Israeli interest.
Yet Israel has real long-term fears that might leave it open to these ideas at some point in the future—and those fears are existential in nature. Domestically, the death of the Oslo peace process has brought Israelis face to face with the reality of the current situation. What some have termed an “ethnocracy”—a single state controlled by one ethnic group at the expense of another—can no longer be seen as an anomaly or a response to short-term security needs. It is a deeply entrenched political reality that may serve the Jewish national project poorly over the long term.
Internationally, Israelis have great fears that their country will turn into a pariah like South Africa became in the 1970s and 1980s—a country increasingly ostracized in world affairs. Searching for new long-term approaches will make many Israelis very nervous, but it may be the only way to address these long-term fears.
For Palestinians, the fears are different. The distasteful political realities lie not in the dark future; they exist now. Actually, the future looks bleak as well: the dream of generations of Palestinians for Palestinian statehood has simply lost its luster. Fatah and the PLO leadership, which have identified with a state-building project for over a generation, have seen their efforts come to a full stop. Even the end of the Palestinian Authority is openly explored. Hamas, which initially offered an Islamic state as an alternative, is now investing all its energies into holding on to Gaza.
One state, two states, an Islamic state—those are yesterday’s debates. Palestinians are now contemplating a future with no state at all, at least not one to call their own. The Palestinian national movement has lost little of its hold on Palestinians in recent years, but it has seen its central goal—statehood for Palestine—recede.
That objective has come to seem less likely, at least in the short term. And Palestinian statehood is not only receding on the ground but now seems to be receding in the hearts of some Palestinians as well, as some cast about for short- or even long-term alternatives that would meet Palestinian national aspirations in some other form than Palestinian statehood. Palestinians are not just ready for new ideas, they are desperate.
From Incubation to Hatching?
If the EU incubates a set of new approaches to the conflict, it will get little immediate support from the “official” actors. But the incubation process cannot and should not be done only by Brussels bureaucrats; it can also be conducted through support for Palestinians and Israelis who are already thinking about such ideas. It might please some and alienate others, but it will not be possible to convert these ideas into a diplomatic initiative designed to settle the conflict in the short term. Even if the parties were amenable now (and they are not), Europe is too diffuse a diplomatic force in most instances.
Indeed, if the incubation of a new approach does help change the diplomatic equation, it might be necessary to reintroduce the United States in a leading role, simply because the United States has the trust of Israel, deep ties with various actors, and the coherence to be able to design and pursue a sustained diplomatic initiative.
In the meantime, however, the EU can take three specific diplomatic steps to protect the incubation process.
First of all, the EU should engage with the new Palestinian unity (or technocratic) government, when and if this is formed. That is despite possible pressure from Israel and even the United States—though the latter’s position retains some ambiguity.
Second, the EU can pursue its insistence on the implementation of international law. After all, the EU has long emphasized normative concerns and principles of international law as drivers of its foreign policy and has generated expectations accordingly.
A third step that is heavily discussed in Brussels and that will probably gain some prominence soon regards the issue of the labeling of products originating from the settlements. In 2013, the EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton personally led an effort to gain help and political support for issuing guidelines on labeling settlement products. Publication was supposed to take place by the end of 2013, but it was frozen so as not to jeopardize U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts. Following his failure to force the parties to reach a “framework agreement,” it is even possible—though hardly inevitable—that the EU will proceed with the labeling of products in mid-2014.
Such small steps—and even the broader conceptual ideas—are hardly revolutionary if the history of European involvement in the conflict is taken into full view. And they will not be revolutionary in their consequences. But they do offer hope of an evolution in a more productive direction, rather than a deterioration of the conflict into one that endangers the national and individual interests of Israelis and Palestinians.
Dimitris Bouris is a research fellow at the European Neighborhood Policy Chair at the College of Europe in Natolin, Poland.
1 This section is based in part on Dimitris Bouris, The European Union and Occupied Palestinian Territories: State-Building Without a State (Routledge, 2014).