Why a more involved EU in the Middle East?

, by Michal Radoshitzky

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Why a more involved EU in the Middle East?

After seven years devoid of official Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the Annapolis process launched under US auspices at the end of 2007, has led to a series of ongoing discussions between Israeli and Palestinian officials regarding the parameters of a final status agreement to end the conflict.

It appears, however that the Israeli-Palestinian commitment at Annapolis, “to engage in vigorous, ongoing and continuous negotiations and make every effort to conclude an agreement before the end of 2008”, will be very difficult to stand by.

The lack of progress can be attributed to a number of factors including: differences of opinion and perspectives on final-status issues between the sides; internal differences between the leaders with each of their local constituencies; the split between Hamas and Fatah on the Palestinian side; internal politics on the Israeli side which involve the stepping down of PM Olmert this September; the gap between the situation on the ground and discussions around the negotiations table and an abstaining of the international community from encouraging the leaderships to go through with the necessary concessions.

Despite US engagement, building in Israeli settlements continues, as does Palestinian violence and targeted attacks at Israeli citizens. Nevertheless, the United States is often perceived as the most suitable force to oversee the process and to mediate between the sides at times of crises. EU institutional engagement of Israeli policy-shapers, on the other hand, is perceived to be minimal and of little influence. This is in stark opposition to the conclusion reached by the European Council of December 15th, 2006, which “noted with concern that the Middle East is faced with one of the worst crises in years”; that “the Israeli-Arab conflict is at the heart of this crisis” and that “the resolution of the Middle East conflict is central to the EU’s strategic interests and remains high on the agenda of the EU external policy”.

For Israel to cut a deal with the Palestinians and the rest of her Arab neighbors, and then later be able to implement any understandings reached - an actively supportive and involved European Union is needed. Based on Europe’s own experience in uniting behind a common goal, no-one is better positioned to help Israelis and Palestinians change false illusions of a zero-sum game into tangible perceptions of a win-win situation.

The launching of the Union for the Mediterranean earlier this month, with the participation of leaders from 43 European and Mediterranean countries, under the auspices of the French Presidency of the EU is but one positive example of the increased involvement that the European Union can have in the region. Other examples include a commitment to take an active role in the solution to the core issue of refugees; the provision of financial incentives; the increase of the number of visits of high-ranking European officials to the region and direct communication of European leaders with the Israeli public.

This last means of constructively increasing European involvement can be poignantly illustrated by the official visit of French President Sarkozy to the region in June. During his brief stay in Israel, Mr. Sarkozy spoke at Israel’s Knesset. Throughout his words the President received a number of standing ovations regardless of claims that there can’t be peace “without recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of two States” and “without a border negotiated on the basis of the 1967 agreement and exchanges of territory making it possible to build two viable States” (President Sarkozy, Jerusalem, June 23rd, 2008). These messages were perpetually communicated to the Israeli public on the different media outlets.

At a later stage, there is no doubt that we will also need a strong European Union to assist us in the implementation of any agreement reached. A tangible example can be found in the most detailed model agreement to date, the Geneva Accord, drafted by senior Israeli and Palestinian civil society leaders in 2003. This document explains in great detail mechanisms such as an International Verification Group (IVG) and a Multinational Force (MF) which will need to be established in order to “assist the parties to implement an agreement and preempt and promptly mediate disputes on the ground”.

The final element in the equation, which perhaps may come as a surprise to some is the Israeli public’s desire to see a more involved EU in the region

The final element in the equation, which perhaps may come as a surprise to some is the Israeli public’s desire to see a more involved EU in the region. During 2007 and 2008, Geneva Initiative commissioned a number of polls assessing Israelis’ readiness for increased European involvement. In general, these polls attest to a rise in Israelis’ will to see a more involved Europe, with the most recent poll conducted during July 25th-26th 2008, indicating that for the first time the majority of Israelis (58%) support increasing European involvement in the Israeli Palestinian process (while only 37% of the public oppose). It is true that despite these findings and the lack of significant progress on the ground, Israelis still perceive the US as the preferred mediator (in comparison, 73% of Israelis opt for a more involved US), however it is most likely that this trend emanates from false perceptions of the EU as being somewhat bias in favor of the Palestinian side.

Constructive EU engagement in the region together with the assistance of the Israeli peace camp can mitigate such false perceptions which are clearly the product of fear. In this respect, should the European Union take a strategic decision to become more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Israeli civil society sector could play a key role in providing EU institutions with policy advice and field-related data.

It is clear then that should there be the will – the way could be found to increase European involvement in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Further to an interview in which EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP), Javier Solana’s stated: “I strongly and consistently keep advocating a comprehensive and peaceful solution to the Israeli-Arab conflict in general and Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular. It is indeed a strategic priority for the European Union” (Jerusalem Post, April 2008) – the question to be asked is: what are we waiting for?

Image: the israelo-palestinian puzzle, source : Lettre du Consistoire

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