By Lamis Andoni, Al-Jazeera – 13 Dec 2010
The EU has allowed Washington to dominate Arab-Israeli diplomacy for far too long
Several senior European politicians have urged the European Union (EU) to threaten Israel with sanctions if it continues to build Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.
A letter signed by, among others, Mary Robinson, the former EU commissioner, and Javier Solana, the organisation’s former foreign affairs chief, calls for a European peace plan based on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the equivalent of “100 per cent of the territory [Israel] occupied in 1967, including its capital in East Jerusalem”.
The demands made by the group of 26 former European leaders are not vastly different from the EU’s declared position, but this call represents a push for a more assertive policy that includes measures designed to pressure Israel to comply.
Included within this is the suggestion that the EU’s informal freeze on upgrading diplomatic relations with Israel should be linked to settlement construction. “The EU has always maintained that settlements are illegal, but has not attached any consequences for continued and systematic settlement expansion,” the letter, which was sent to European governments and EU institutions, said.
The EU is essentially being called upon to take some initiative and move independently from the US policy that has so far dominated all diplomatic efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict – something long desired by Palestinians who have been disappointed by the EU’s weakness before Washington.
Dominating the diplomatic stage
Independent EU policies, with claws, could dramatically alter the dynamics of international relations, particularly as they relate to the Middle East. But the fact that the signatories to the letter are politicians who until recently held powerful positions across Europe, indicates not only the extent of European resentment towards the status quo but also the continent’s inability to break free from US foreign policy.
From the outset of Arab-Israeli negotiations, which began with the Madrid Conference in 1991, Europe has assumed an active but secondary role – leaving the US to dictate the terms of the process. Historically, the US was so keen to exclude other countries that it actively sought to prevent the convening of an international peace conference on the Middle East conflict until it was clear that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. Once it had collapsed, the US was able to fully monopolise the diplomatic stage.
With this US supremacy has come the dominance of Washington’s policy focus, which has always been on ensuring that Israel maintains both a military and political edge. This it guaranteed by blocking others from participating in the asymmetrical negotiations.
The central difference between the US and the EU is that most European countries, rhetorically at least, believe that a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict must be based on international law and UN resolutions, while the US seeks to negate these to ensure that any solution is based on Israeli-manufactured facts on the ground.
But despite this different political stand, the EU has, for the most part, fallen in line behind Washington – supporting and facilitating the US controlled negotiation process.
This deferral to the US as the sole superpower is not confined to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Europe has more broadly failed to meaningfully challenge US power or to seek greater parity in its alliance with the US – perhaps most notably displayed in its obedient following of Washington into the disastrous wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Time to mutiny?
It is not only Europe’s weakness, however, that has enabled the US to chart the parameters of Western relations with the region. Arabs are also to blame for maintaining the illusion that the key to peace is to be found in Washington’s hands.
Arab officials often complain that Europe has failed to fulfill Arab expectations and left the region vulnerable to the US, but European officials, for their part, suggest that Arab submission to the US has undermined Europe’s efforts to boost its role.
Both parties appear reluctant to loosen the US’ grip on international relations.
It is important to note that European positions vary – with Britain, Germany, and to some extent, France, serving as the main European enforcers of US foreign policy. However, the fact that the letter was signed by former officials from these countries – including Chris Patten, a former British member of the European Commission, Helmut Schmidt, a former German chancellor, and Hubert Védrine, a former French foreign minister – reveals the extent of European frustration with Washington’s full backing of Israel.
Israel, which was quick to condemn the letter, has always argued that Europe’s “hostility” towards it impacts its leverage in the peace process, while the US has similarly employed the argument that its ‘special relationship’ with Israel better equips it to encourage Israeli compliance. But this argument is only partially true. Israel must be influenced by Europe, for it cannot sustain any standing in the world with US support alone.
Continuous Israeli lobbying in Europe and Israel’s sensitivity towards popular European campaigns in solidarity with the Palestinians have repeatedly revealed that Israel is using the ‘leverage’ argument in a bid to blackmail Europe and undercut international pressures.
It is difficult to gauge the impact of the letter, but its timing suggests that the signatories believe that growing popular European campaigns against Israel’s actions warrant an EU shift from words to deeds. It is time for Europe to regain its role, for Palestinians do not stand to be the only losers from continued European subordination to Washington.
Now that the US has abandoned its efforts to achieve a settlement freeze as a prelude to negotiations, Europe must put an end to the US monopoly of peace diplomacy. Arab states and the Palestinians must also stand up to support this mutiny by Europe’s grandees, as the Guardian calls them, and should start by removing some of their eggs from Washington’s basket.
Lamis Andoni is an analyst and commentator on Middle Eastern and Palestinian affairs.
More IOA articles by Lamis Andoni