The European Union’s policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – rethinking the Oslo paradigm


I) Introduction

Last year, Palestinian stance deteriorated in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, mainly because of Donald Trump’s pro-Israeli actions. The European Union opposed US administration’s peace plan that favored Israel. To some extent, the EU’s opposition contributed to the failure of Trump’s peace plan. The EU’s threats also dissuaded Israelis to annex 30% of West Bank. Overall, despite these two recent victories, the EU remained passive in the face of the constant deterioration of the economic, political and social conditions of the Palestinian people. The EU appears to be unable to do more for the Palestinian cause because of its strategic paralysis regarding this dossier and its obsession with the obsolete Oslo paradigm. The EU should ramp up its efforts to devise new paradigm in accordance with the current realities on the ground. European experts talk about giving Israeli decision makers a choice: to commit to negotiations for a two-state solution or to give Palestinian people equal rights in one democratic state. They also argue that the EU should use economic and political pressure to stop the expansions of Israeli settlements. With regards to the Palestinian side, the EU should press for political reforms and the promotion of democracy, rule of law and good governance.


II) Central recent developments

In January 2020, Trump administration unveiled a new peace plan (Peace for Prosperity Plan) for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Dubbed `Deal of the century`, this plan was guided by the narrative and interests of the Israeli right and ignored almost entirely the Palestinian claims and aspirations[1]. The Peace for Prosperity Plan was a one-sided plan that favored Israel. Its provisions not only were against United Nations Security Council resolutions (from resolution 242 to resolution 2334)[2] and international law, but also envisioned the annexation of 30 per cent of the West Bank. The plan would have sealed the one-state reality that has developed in the Occupied Palestinian Territories (OPT) in the last two decades. In addition, it would have permanently enshrined Israeli security responsibilities and Israel’s control over borders, airspace and coastal waters. Moreover, it would have deprived a future State of Palestine of a contiguous territory. Finally, yet importantly, it would have excluded the right of Palestinian refugees to return to Israel. European experts argued that the outcome of this plan would lead to a `Palestinian state-minus reality` in which, at best, the Palestinian people could hope for a Palestinian autonomous entity under Israeli rule.

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security, Josep Borrell, issued a statement in which he criticized Trump’s plan, declaring that it departs from the international agreed parameters. Borrell warned that steps towards annexation, if implemented, would not pass unchallenged[3]. In the end, Borrell’s statement did not represent the European Union’s stance on the issue because Hungary vetoed it[4]. Some observers argued that despite this lack of unanimity, the reactions spurred from the European states highly contributed to the failure of Trump’s plan.


When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his intentions to annex parts of the occupied West Bank[5], France, Belgium, Holland and some European lawmakers proposed that the European Union devise a plan to sanction the move, if taken[6]. They talked about a various range of sanctions: suspending of the Association Agreement with Israel, recognizing the Palestinian state within 1967 borders, banning imports of Israeli goods produced in the OPT, excluding Israeli settlements from bilateral relations or stopping the funding through the European Neighborhood Policy[7]. In the end, Benjamin Netanyahu gave up the plan. Although on the ground the situation remained unfavorable for the Palestinian people, the EU-Israeli relations returned to normal. The European states have threatened with retaliations if Israel de jure annexes parts of the West Bank, but they did close to nothing in the face of the facto annexation of this territory. European foreign policy observers criticized the EU for accepting the occupation and releasing the pressure tool after Netanyahu pulled back. They argued the EU could have used the sanctions tool to extract concessions from Israel.


In August 2020, Trump administration announced the Abraham Accord – normalization and formalization of the relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Josep Borrell welcomed this agreement by saying that it is a key step in stabilizing the region[8]. The reality on the ground contradicted the European optimism because immediately after, the Israelis started building new settlements. Abraham Accord broke a long-standing taboo in the Arab world, that the Arab states will recognize Israel in return for making meaningful political compromises vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Abraham Accord did not lead to any progress, neither to the peace process, nor to the Palestinian lives. Abraham Accord confirmed once again that the Palestinian issues are no more a primary force influencing political and security dynamics in the region[9].


III) The roots of the E U’s  strategic paralysis

The EU member states hardly speak on a single voice when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This dossier divided the EU in three camps: a pro-Israeli camp, formed mainly around Hungary and Poland; a pro-Palestinian camp, which includes Luxembourg, Sweden and Belgium; a relatively neutral camp coalesced around France. The following two examples demonstrate the EU’s inability to adopt a common position. In May 2018, Hungary, Czech Republic and Romania blocked a statement condemning the relocation to Jerusalem of the US embassy[10]. Hungary openly defended this move. In March 2019, Hungary opened in Jerusalem a commercial office with diplomatic status, in defiance of the EU’s position[11]. On the other side of the spectrum, Sweden recognized the Palestinian state in 2014.


Israel undermines the EU consensus by engaging with individual states rather than with EU as a unitary entity. By this approach, Israel benefits from the close relationship it has with four Central European states that make up the Visegrad Group (Hungary, Poland, Czech Republic and Slovakia)[12]. At the official level, the Visegrad Group supports the two-state solution but in reality, they are not particularly eager to implement it[13]. Generally, these four countries do not support punitive measures against Israel. These divisions are important because they tie EU’s hands. In the diplomatic field, the EU expresses and adopts positions based on consensus. These internal divisions limit EU’s credibility and capacity of action and represent an opportunity for Israeli and Palestinian lobby.


Besides its lack of cohesion, the EU is more comfortable to allow the United States to lead on making peace between Palestine and Israel. Israeli-Palestinian conflict is intertwined with other international frameworks, like the Middle East Quartet and the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, to name only two[14]. The EU does not have the political will to press Israel to act in accordance with the international law. Because of this self-imposed secondary role and its lack of unity, the EU is unable to use the sanctions-leverage against Israel for violating the international law[15]. Not only does the EU not have the political will to sanction Israel, but also some European states labeled as anti-Semitic some actions that called for sanctioning the Israeli products produced in the OPT. For example, in May 2019, German Bundestag (the German Federal Parliament) adopted a resolution calling BDS movement (Boycott, Divestments and Sanctions) as anti-Semitic[16].


For too long, Brussels issued repetitive and ineffective statements, whose impact on the parties concerned and, on the region, at large was negligible. This is also the case with the EU-Palestinian

elite relation. The EU is unable to press the current Palestinian elite, who enjoys power

because of EU’s political and financial support, to act in accordance with democracy and the rule of law. Therefore, the state building project in Palestine largely failed and the Palestinian elite ignored the EU’s calls for democracy, rule of law and accountability. The EU is risk averse and reserved in demanding structural reforms, especially after the so-called Arab Spring[17]. Since then, the EU is more concerned with stability and countering the rise of Islamist groups than in good governance.


The EU failed in contributing proactively to the revival of the Middle East Peace Process. The EU showed a reactionary political approach to this conflict[18]. For example, in July 2018, the EU was contented with condemning the Israeli nation-state bill, which seeks to define Israel as the nation- state of the Jewish people[19]. In April 2019, US recognized Israel sovereignty on the Golan Heights. In reply, the EU expressed its support for 242 (1967) and 497 (1981) UNSC resolutions that invalidate Israeli claims to territories occupied in 1967 war[20]. These replies did not change the dynamics on the ground.


The EU’s actions will likely remain confined to a reactionary position in the near future because of the lack of internal cohesion on this matter, the self-imposed secondary role, the pandemic situation and other challenges, like framing the post-Brexit relation with the United Kingdom. The EU will likely continue to be a status-quo power in which the Visegrad Group countries, especially Hungary, will act like brakes. Another shortcoming in the EU approach is that it is stuck in the logic of the Oslo Agreements, envisaging a path of two-state solution that is completely disconnected from the realities on the ground. We can safely predict that bilateral relation with Israel will remain unchanged despite continued Israeli occupation of the OPT and that the EU will continue to fund Palestinian Authority at current levels despite its gross undemocratic records and lack of reforms.


IV) Failure of the Oslo paradigm

Since the Venice Declaration of 1980, the Palestinian right to self-determination and the two-state solution is the cornerstone of the EU’s policy regarding this conflict. The EU supports a negotiated two-state solution, on the basis of 1967 lines with equivalent land swaps based on what the two sides agree. In this envisioned outcome, the State of Israel and an independent, democratic, sovereign and viable State of Palestine will live side by side in peace, security and mutual recognition. The EU also calls for security agreements that, for Palestinians, respect their sovereignty and show that the occupation is over; and, for Israelis, protect their security, anddeal effectively with their security threats. The EU recommends a just, fair, agreed and realistic solution for the refugee question. The EU proposes negotiations to recognize Jerusalem as the future capital for both states[21]. The EU affirms that settlements in the OPT are illegal and represent a threat to the two-state solution. The EU does not recognize the Israeli sovereignty over the territories occupied after 1967. The EU supports the Palestinian state-building process, by promoting democracy and good governance.


The EU promotes these objectives through the Oslo Agreements paradigm, but the reality on the ground shows that this approach failed. Over the past 26 years, the Oslo Agreements have provided complicit cover for the entrenchment of an apartheid regime from the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea. The Oslo paradigm led to an absolute Israeli control over Palestinian life. Developments in recent years made almost impossible the two-state scenario. Israel has imposed upon Palestinians a one-state reality of unequal rights, perpetual occupation and conflict[22]. The Israeli settlements and infrastructure connecting them spurred, which will lead to a future fragmented Palestinian state. The Fatah-Hamas rivalry represents another obstacle for the idea of a united Palestine. Having this in mind, the EU should realize that its three main objectives (peacemaking, two-state solution and Palestinian state building) are out of reach in the near future. The Oslo paradigm failed to freeze the status-quo, conditioned the existence of the Palestinian state on reaching an agreement with Israel, and lacked any real enforcement mechanisms to bring and keep Israel at the negotiating table. In fact, the Oslo paradigm has given Israel veto power over Palestinian aspirations.


V) Outlines of a new paradigm

The European experts on this issue called on the EU to rethink its approach to the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. They argued that the new paradigm should be based on the following lines:

a)  prioritizing equal rights as the cornerstone of a political settlement

b)  rejecting open-ended occupation and apartheid as the default outcome

c)  giving Israel a choice – if they continue to block the two-state solution, they should accept a one state solution with equal rights[23]


This outline does not represent a total rupture with the old approach. Some EU countries and officials pointed to this direction. For example, in February 2020, Belgium, France, Germany, Estonia and Poland issued a joint statement at the United Nations supporting `a political process

in line with international law, which ensures equal rights and which is acceptable to both parties`[24].


In July 2020, the EU’s Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process, Susanna Terstal, affirmed that `there is only one alternative to two states: one state where two people live side by side with equal rights in peace and security`.

In line with this new paradigm, the EU can do the following things:

a)  Discouraging the construction of more Israeli settlements. The EU should make clear to the Israeli officials that deepening the EU-Israel relation is not compatible with denying the Palestinian rights. The EU should press for decolonization and direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for a two-state solution. The EU should give a choice to the Israelis on negotiation for an independent Palestinian state or agreeing on a plan for holding a national referendum in the land of Palestine.

b)  Pressing the Palestinian political elite to implement reforms. The EU should give a choice to the Palestinian leaders: adopting reforms in line with democratic and good governance principles or losing the EU’s economic, political and diplomatic support. The EU should make efforts to bridge the gap between all Palestinian political factions in order to homogenize the political spectrum.

c)  Becoming an equal partner to the United States of America on this issue.

d)  Engaging with the Arab world with realistic expectations. The EU welcomed the recent normalization of relations between Israel and the four Arab states. The reality is that geopolitics and bilateral interests determined these relations, and they showed little concern or none for the Palestinian self-determination. These deals have enabled the hardline Israeli position, undermined the Palestinian aspirations, and hobbled the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which conditioned the Arab-Israeli normalization on the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. These normalizations showed that the Palestinian issue is no more a driving force in the region. Therefore, the EU should be realistic and recognize that these developments will not bring dividends for the Palestinian cause. Having this in mind, the EU should engage in realistic discussions with the regional countries, especially with Jordan, Egypt and Qatar.


As a conclusion, without serious threats that can alter the current Israeli sense of impunity and without reforming the Palestinian political spectrum, no amount of negotiations will end the conflict or turn back the tide of instability.












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