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Israel’s Tussle with Europe

By Andrew Wilson

On Monday, while Israeli and Palestinian representatives were meeting in Amman, Palestinian Liberation Organization Executive Committee member Hanan Ashrawi called upon Europe's intervention to “end the occupation.” The Palestinians, who have been unable to get Israel to freeze settlement construction, have good reason to believe that Europe will sympathize. Just before Christmas there was an unusually sharp exchange between Israel and Europe over Israeli renewal of settlement expansions. We believe that Europe’s concerns are genuine and reflect the views of most of the international community, and that Israel should take them seriously. Otherwise, expect frictions between Israel and Europe to grow worse in the coming months.

In a statement on December 20, the European members of the UN Security Council—the UK, France, Germany and Portugal—called on Israel to reverse settlement expansion, declaring, “The viability of the Palestinian state that we want to see and the two-state solution that is essential for Israel’s long-term security are threatened by the systematic and deliberate expansion of settlements.” 

The government of Israel reacted angrily. Its foreign ministry criticized the statement, saying that it interferes with Israel’s domestic affairs and warned that Israel might turn away from the Europeans, since the statement “does not enhance the status they [the European nations] wish to be granted.” The U.S. joined Israel in rebuking Europe with State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland observing that “shouting from the rooftops of the Security Council is not going to change the situation on the ground.”

Nevertheless, the Palestinian Authority has already achieved widespread acknowledgement throughout the world community and in Europe especially of its narrative of oppression. This achievement comes not only as a result of its efforts for recognition at the United Nations. It is also the fruit of a society that has embraced non-violent resistance in the face of Israeli actions, including “price-tag” vandalism and the often violent occupation policies of the Israel Defense Forces, while working diligently to develop the economy and infrastructure of the West Bank through the leadership of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. This behavior in the face of adversity has made them well regarded in the international community and has dispelled its earlier reputation for terrorism.

Moreover, the UN gambit has re-energized the peace process. The Europeans, as a leading force in the Quartet (the U.S., EU, Russia and the UN), are engaged not only for motives of self-interest, but also as a moral imperative. Some of Europe’s sympathy with the Palestinians is a reflection of guilt over its colonial past, which it has since repudiated. Moreover, Europe’s attachment to the ideal of peace in the Christian holy land cannot be gainsaid.

For these reasons, Israel’s rebuke that the Europeans are “interfering in their domestic affairs” rings hollow. Moreover, such language, calling settlement construction in what may become the territory of the future Palestinian state “domestic,” is a challenge to the peace process itself. Israel should not expect Europe to stand down. 

Meanwhile, the Palestinians are making every indication that they want the peace talks to succeed, even as they look for demonstrations of good faith by Israel. Two days ago, after Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas met with Jordan’s King Abdullah, Abbas reportedly said that the Amman talks should be utilized “regardless of how dim the prospects are.” And Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat remarked according to the Jerusalem Post of December 12, “To us, failure is not an option. I cannot go again and sit with my Israeli colleagues and fail. It is too dangerous.”These Palestinian avowals of sincerity play well in Europe.

Previously, I suggested that Israel would do well to offer a gesture of good faith with a settlement “lull.” A yearlong cessation of settlement construction to allow negotiations to go forward would hardly impinge on its designs to build up the settlements should the negotiations fail. Israel has already demonstrated that with its building boom after the expiration of its earlier 10-month freeze that ended in September 2010.

Yet a lull is only one of many possibilities. Even a partial curtailment of settlement activity, though falling short of the full settlement freeze demanded by the Palestinians, could be enough to show good faith to the Europeans, who would then put the onus on the Palestinians to accept it as a basis to sit down at the negotiating table.

Instead, Israeli settlement construction in 2011 increased 20 percent over the level in 2010, according to a recent report by Peace Now. On December 19, Israel announced the approval of the construction of 1,028 homes, including 180 new homes in Givat Ze’ev, a settlement that lies closer to Ramallah than to Jerusalem. An aide to German Chancellor Merkel called it “a devastating message with regard to the current efforts to resume peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians.”. This was in addition to announcements last year in August and September allowing the construction of thousands of new housing units in neighborhoods near Jerusalem.

Israel seems to be hewing a hard line. There could be several reasons for this. Perhaps Israel is using settlement construction to bludgeon the Palestinians to accede to its terms by showing them the cost of delay. Perhaps Prime Minister Netanyahu's  political survival demands that he caters to the settler movement. Or maybe his protestations of wanting a two-state solution are insincere, and he is stringing along negotiations as a tactic in a strategy of managed conflict rather than a peace process. Nevertheless, what Netanyahu has to consider is that he is not only managing a conflict with the Palestinians, but with Europe as well.

What then are the Europeans, who want peace, to do? I expect them to push Israel harder, including punitive measures if Israel continues to escalate its settlement activity.

Nevertheless, European leaders need to be mindful that Israelis have reasons to resent their “advice.” For many Jews, the Holocaust and centuries of anti-Semitism disqualify Europe from having any moral authority over them, even though they forget that Israel’s existence would not have happened without European support. Israelis are also well aware that Europe has always curried favor with Arab countries due to its dependence on oil. In addition, Israelis can accuse Europe of naïveté, because they do not live in the rough neighborhood that is the Middle East. Hence, however well intended the Europeans may be, Israelis tend to interpret their pressure as hostility.

We therefore encourage the Europeans to take a more even-handed approach, with policies that support Israel even as they push hard to curb settlements. To prevent Israel from reflexively demonizing Europe, Israel needs to see that Europe is truly acting in an even-handed way. For example, they can lean on the Palestinians to solve one of the greatest sources of Israeli insecurity: the future role of Hamas in a Palestinian unity government.

In the course of their talks to reconcile with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas leaders have sometimes said the right things. For instance, Fatah official Mohammad Shtayyeh is reported to have stated that Hamas concurred with the Palestinian Authority's position of passive resistance to Israeli occupation, agreed on a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, and said it would accept talks with Israel if the Quartet could create a “conducive and appropriate environment for negotiations.” Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal reportedly has signaled his acceptance of these positions, which will be laid out in a forthcoming political accord.

Yet Israel’s distrust of Hamas is well founded. Hamas continues to fire rockets into Israel. Hamas has not formally disavowed its goal of Israel’s complete destruction. Most Jews believe that any accommodation with Israel is merely a hudna (truce) to gain a tactical advantage before resuming hostilities. Once Hamas forms a government with Fatah, the entire Palestinian project becomes tainted. We can expect Israel to declare that they no longer have a Palestinian partner.

We therefore hope that Europeans help Israel marginalize Hamas. The Amman talks, of which Hamas has indicated its displeasure, have been a step in that direction. Also, the Europeans should influence Hamas to amend its founding charter and officially repudiate its goal of Israel’s destruction. They should put the Palestinians on notice that only with a changed Hamas can the proposed unity government be considered an acceptable partner for peace.

Israel, for its part, needs to recognize that Europe’s concerns are also well- founded. It should understand the frustration that its policy of unconstrained settlement expansion is causing Europe. It needs to recognize that expanding settlements is incompatible with arriving at a viable two-state solution. Even if undertaken for tactical reasons, settlement construction impedes the viability of a future Palestinian state. A viable state needs territorial contiguity, but that would be impossible if settlements and their access roads were to cut deep into Palestinian territory.

Furthermore, the Europeans are correct when they state that a viable Palestinian state and a two-state solution are “essential for Israel’s long-term security.” Peace with its nearest Arab neighbor, Palestine, will free Israeli resources to focus on the bigger threat posed by Iran. It will also help neuter anti-Israeli sentiment throughout the Arab world that blocks normalization of relations. These will be real security gains, with the limited downside of occasional terrorist acts that could be foiled by Israeli-Palestinian cooperation on security. Israel should recognize that Europe's search for a negotiated peace, does not oppose its long-term interests.

Europe’s push on the matter of settlements is the admonishment of a friend. Israel would do well to listen. Otherwise, we could witness a serious deterioration in relations.

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Andrew Wilson is co-author of the Citizens Proposal for a Border between Israel and Palestine (www.israel-palestine-border.org), an independent initiative to draw a map based on the principles of fairness, contiguity, access, minimizing dislocation of the population, and enhancing conditions for economic development.

(Photo courtesy of the Palestine Solidarity Project)


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