Palestine-Israel conflict has been rightly labelled as the mother of all issues in the Middle East. It is one of the most protracted and potentially dangerous conflicts in the world. After more than seven decades, the resolution of the conflict is still a distant dream. It caused wars, shed blood, created disorder and fomented instability in the region. Indeed, impact of the conflict is not confined to the region only; almost the whole world is bearing the brunt of it. This issue became the root cause of radicalization and anti-West sentiments among Muslims. Global community has been incessantly striving to bring an end to the conflict but all their efforts have proved futile.
Whenever there is a talk about the resolution of Israel-Palestine conflict, states, academia and activists look toward the United States and United Nations. Both are considered relevant and authoritative actors having capacity to bring the conflict to an amicable settlement. However, the role of the European Union in this regard is rarely discussed. The EU enjoys soft power that is adequate enough to affect decision-making in international arena. It has different vision of the world and distinct way to deal with the thorniest of issues. Diplomacy and peaceful means are at the heart of EU foreign policy. Amid this backdrop, this article attempts to figure out the role EU can play in resolving the Palestine conflict. Before, going into details of that aspect, let’s have a brief overview of the conflict.
By the end of nineteenth century, Jewish intellectuals were involved in making organized efforts to attain a separate homeland for their dispersed and dislocated community. In his pamphlet entitled “Auto-Emancipation,” Leon Pinsker argued, “The Jews are not a living nation; they are everywhere aliens; therefore they are despised. The civil and political emancipation of the Jews is not sufficient to raise them in the estimation of the peoples. The proper, the only solution, is in the creation of a Jewish nationality, of a people living upon its own soil, the auto-emancipation of the Jews; their return to the ranks of the nations by the acquisition of a Jewish homeland.” Owing to consistent pressure by the influential Jewish community, Great Britain, in 1917, promised through Balfour Declaration that Jews would get a separate homeland.
This was the time when Jews from Russia and other parts of the world started to migrate to, and settle in, Palestine. Meanwhile, emergence of Nazi rule in Germany and subsequent systematic campaign to massacre Jews expedited the migration. The settling of millions of Jews in Palestine triggered a strong reaction from the Arab world. Arab countries expressed deep concerns on what they called ‘invasion’. With the passage of time, Jews declared establishment of Israel as an independent state and it got recognized by the United Nations as well. Colonial and Allied Powers paid no heed to Arab concerns. In reaction, Arabs attacked the newborn Israel to regain the occupied territory, but owing to world powers’ support for Israel, they lost the war — and more territory too. Since then, there have been three major wars. When Arabs repeatedly faced humiliating defeats, they gave up the option of full-fledged military confrontation and Egypt and Jordan made peace with Israel. Then Palestinians started to fight on their own and became symbol of resistance against illegitimate Israeli occupation. Their resistance kept the issue alive at international arena and it is because of their own efforts that the major part of the world still expresses sympathy with the persecuted Palestinians. While the prospects for resolution of the conflict are very less, the world has not yet ceased its efforts to provide Palestinians what they deserve under inherent, inalienable and natural right to self-determination.
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Why EU should play a constructive and active role?
There are various reasons which necessitate an active and constructive role of the European Union in resolving this decades-long conflict. At the very first place, European countries are responsible for the genesis of the Palestine-Israel conflict. After the end of World War I, colonial powers — England and France through Sykes-Picot Agreement — redrew the map of Middle East and created various states to promote, preserve and protect their own commercial and geopolitical interests. According to Dries Van Agt, former Prime Minister of the Netherlands, “The European colonial powers, Britain and France, carved out the Ottoman Empire, with hardly any feelings for the problems and the circumstances of the people who lived in those regions. They just took a map and parcelled out the Middle East among themselves. The end result was that all the states that emerged in later decades have achieved independence, except for the Province of Palestine. Without these European interventions there after World War I, history would have certainly taken another course.”
This proves that European colonial powers are directly responsible for all the woes of the Middle East. They didn’t even bother to consider the grievances of Arabs just for the sake of commercial interests. Adding fuel to the fire, they facilitated the migration of Jews to the land of Palestine and establishment of Israel thereupon. Such ill-considered policies of colonial powers caused fighting and mayhem in the region. Therefore, right now, Europe is morally responsible to help Palestine get what it lost in 1948.
Another important reason in this regard is that the conflict is a question of fundamental human rights. Israel has been involved in committing the gravest human rights abuses. It has been violating international law and ignoring the humanitarian calls by global community. Israel has set the precedent for unprecedented human rights violations by refusing to grant even equal status to the Palestinians. Israeli defence forces crush Palestinians’ peaceful resistance with iron fist but still they remain unaccountable. Thousands of children, women and elderly people have been mercilessly killed. Such a horrendous state of affairs demands EU to protect the ideals it vociferously champions. EU must act on the basis of human rights and international law.
EU’s position on the conflict has undergone evolution. Venice Declaration of 1980s was a starting point when EU (then European Community) emerged very clearly and unequivocally with regard to the issue. Prior to this, Europe extended unconditional support to Israel but events in 1970s compelled it to reconsider the policy. At the very first place, EU wanted to resolve this issue on the basis of the so-called two-state solution. On the question of the border, the EU wants Israel to withdraw from all territories it occupied after 1967 and negotiate a settlement according to UNSC Resolutions 242, 338, 1397 and 1515. EU wants Palestinian state as viable, cohesive and geographically connected so that it can pursue independent policy without being dependent on any country.
On the issue of settlement, EU is very clear in its stance that all these settlements are illegal and against the spirit of international law. Israeli settlements in West Bank make a hurdle to the peace process and complicate the situation further. Besides, on the question of capital, EU favours East Jerusalem to be the capital of Palestine. Without it, the problem would not be solved as strong religious sentiments are attached to it.
In essence, current position of EU is in favour of Palestine and it has openly endorsed the “Arab Peace Initiative” which aims to resolve the conflict on the basis of two-state solution. Finally, support for Israeli policies has largely declined in Europe. People are increasingly demanding from their respective governments to take necessary steps to help Palestinians.
EU & the resolution of the conflict
As mentioned earlier, policies of European countries were favouring Israel until 1973. But Yom Kippur War and the ensuing oil crisis altered the whole scenario. A number of European countries realised that their support to Israel was detrimental to their interests because of their proximity with the Middle East and their dependence upon its oil. Therefore, they changed the course of their policy and committed to resolve the issue. At the end of 1970s, unexpectedly, European community accepted Palestinians’ right to their own land. This was a major policy shift followed by the announcement of Venice Declaration. The Declaration was a watershed in Europe’s foreign policy toward Middle East. Through the Declaration, European Community endorsed the right to security and existence of all states in the region. EC emphasised the need to fulfil the legitimate rights of Palestinian people. This was possible because of the active diplomacy of France which compelled the community to reconsider the past policies. This Declaration made significant contribution to garnering support for Palestinian cause.
Meanwhile, EC announced Barcelona Process in 1995 in which the Union iterated the need to initiate the capacity-building of Palestinian Authority (PA) and to help it economically and financially. Since then, Europe has been a major financial donor to the PA.
Year 1999 was also very important because of Berlin Declaration. Through this Declaration, EU made commitment for the creation of Palestine and its recognition at an appropriate time. Through these declarations, EU seemed to be gradually heading toward the recognition of rights of Palestinians. It was setting precedents for other non-Muslim and Western countries to support the cause of Palestine.
In 2002, the EU, the UN, the US and Russia established the Quartet Process which aimed at resolving the issue on the basis of UN Security Council resolutions. Quartet presented “Road Map for Peace” and EU fully supported the initiative. Then, in 2009, Obama became the President of the United States and demonstrated a personal interest in reviving the peace process. Again, EU supported US efforts and provided diplomatic help to all parties. Unfortunately, these efforts failed and the peace process collapsed.
In an election campaign for his next term, Israeli Premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, ignited nationalist sentiments and based his campaign on the slogan ‘Palestine will not be established under his rule’. This was the most unfortunate moment for all because his campaign threatened the global efforts to resolve the conflict and implement the two-state solution.
This triggered a policy shift in European Union. This time, EU passed resolution to recognize the Palestine and help it to gain membership of the United Nations General Assembly. Through the help of European countries, Palestine got an observer status in the UNGA which was hailed as a landmark victory for the Palestinians. European Union also threatened to impose sanctions on products manufactured in occupied territories. Besides, France also lobbied to introduce resolution in the UNSC and persuaded the US not to veto it. Another big moment for the Palestinians came when Sweden recognized the Palestine as a separate state, triggering discussions in the national parliaments of European countries. Various national parliaments have asked their respective governments to follow the suit. Current policy of EU has mounted the pressure on Israel.
Possible policy options
There is no doubt in sincere and dedicated commitment of EU for the cause of Palestine. But, its persistent efforts since 1980s have not materialised the ultimate dream. Therefore, it is the need of the hour that the EU readjusts its policy and becomes more proactive in its dealing with Israel. At the very first place, the EU needs to bring all member states on a single platform. There is a dire need of a consensus, coherent EU policy toward the issue. For that matter, EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini needs to initiate exhausting diplomatic endeavours to all member countries. Admittedly, it is difficult to achieve, but not an impossible task. There was a time when Europe was divided into two camps led by France and Britain on Palestine issue. But now, Britain and France are in the same camp. Both countries have unified voice for the rights of the Palestinians. United voice of Europe will isolate America in its unconditional support for Israel. Certainly, America cannot afford to ignore Europe and act unilaterally in this age of transforming global order. This will surely compel America to reduce its support for Israel and later seek a negotiated settlement.
The second thing which the EU needs to do is to unite the Palestinian factions. EU supported and sponsored the elections in Palestine in 2006. Hamas emerged victorious. But violence ensued because of the infighting between Hamas and Fatah. These infightings ended with the Hamas taking control of Gaza strip and Fatah of West Bank. This division is harming the cause of Palestine in general, and EU efforts in particular. As EU is the leading financer of Palestine, it has the leverage on it. EU should use this leverage to bring both parties on the negotiating table and unite them. Once they are united, EU efforts will get augmented. Besides, this unity will uphold the relevance of two-state solution.
Finally, the most important step would be to pressurise Israel. Since three decades, EU has been trying to persuade Israel through diplomatic means to have a dialogue with PA and seek negotiated settlement. But these diplomatic overtures failed to resolve the issue. Now EU should pursue other options to mount pressure upon Israel. This can be done through sanctions as well. EU should continue with the plan to impose sanctions on Israel. According to Article 2 of the EU-Israel Association Agreement, the relationship between both parties should be based on respect for human rights, democratic principles and International law. Israel is bent on blatant violation of these provisions. This is the basis on which EU should impose sanctions and nudge Israel to seek negotiated settlement and implement two-state solution.
Palestine-Israel conflict is very complex issue that cannot be resolved so easily. There have been global efforts to bring peace between both parties. Unfortunately, peace is as elusive as ever. Many blame unconditional US support to Israel as a reason for the failure of global efforts. Critics claim that multi-faceted support by the US has made Israel stubborn and immune to international pressure. In this equation, EU has been adopting balanced approach since 1980s. Therefore, it enjoys extremely vital position. It has a soft corner in Arab word and Israel as well. EU needs to utilize this leverage and play pivotal role in resolving the conflict. It has been adopting soft measures to persuade Israel. But the time demands to adopt some coercive tactics like diplomatic pressure and sanctions. Along with this, EU should mobilise its member states and other Western countries to rally behind its efforts. EU led coordinated, cohesive and unified policy supplied by carrots and sticks is the only effective and efficient way to force Israel and Palestine to seek a negotiated settlement.