The European Union and the Israel-Palestinian Conflict

Article excerpt

OUR YEARS AGO AT CAMP DAVID, IN JULY 2000, THE MIDDLE EAST Peace Process seemed to be nearing its destination--at least on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Two months later violence engulfed the region, revealing for all to see the fragility of what had been achieved in a decade of negotiations. Since then, the al-Aqsa Infitada has marked a period of a largely low "intensity" conflict for which both Israelis and Palestinians have paid a high price in human, economic and diplomatic terms. Direct political contacts have almost been halted, the Sharon government demanding the removal of Yasser Arafat as prerequisite for restarting real negotiations. The bilateral dynamic that was at the heart of the Oslo process in the 1990s has been superseded by a unilateral logic, most recently evident in Ariel Sharon's proposal for military withdrawal and evacuation of 21 Gaza settlements to be completed by fall 2005.

Even if this plan is carried out, far from obvious due to lack of support from the base of Sharon's Likud party including some within his own government, in the context of the strengthening of Palestinian paramilitary groups, the Gaza evacuation will not mark the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It requires much more: a full fledged solution that will not only sort out the political separation between Israel and a Palestinian independent state but also solve the thorny question of Jerusalem under a divided sovereignty and the equally tricky question of the 3.6 million Palestinian refugees. Yet it is well known that any such global settlement will have to more or less follow the lines of the Clinton parameters (December 2000), the Taba discussions (January 2001) and the Geneva agreement (December 2003). Unfortunately, the failure of the Camp David summit shows that such a global settlement cannot be left to the Israelis and Palestinians themselves. The direct involvement of the international community in helping to work out and implement such a settlement is inescapable--a task that must be undertaken primarily by two outside powers which have, in different ways, been active in the region in the last 30 years; namely, the United States and the European Union.

The US has played a decisive role in all major peace breakthroughs: Camp David I (1978) which led to the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel; the launching of the Madrid peace process (1991); and then since 1993 support for the Oslo process. The EU played a more modest role, developing guidelines for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East ("land for peace": the Palestinians' right to self-determination, and Israel's right to security) and supporting diplomatic initiatives (mainly, but not exclusively, by providing financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority). There is a striking asymmetry: the US has been deeply involved in the peace negotiations from the outset, but until recently refrained from presenting a concrete settlement plan. It was only in late December 2000, at the very end of his mandate, that Bill Clinton presented general parameters for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement and George W. Bush was the first president publicly to endorse the two-state solution. In contrast, the Europeans have been insisting for 25 years that the national rights of the Palestinians should be respected; however, their role in framing the negotiating process has only been marginal.

In this assessment of the European role in the 1990s, the "peace decade," I highlight the main shortcomings of the entire Middle East Peace Process (MEPP), and their effects on Europe's contribution. I then set out a number of policy suggestions that would allow the EU to play a more active and useful role in the Middle East.

The European role in the 1990s

Both strategic and economic factors pushed the European Union toward a common stand on the Arab-Israeli conflict. (1) When European foreign policy cooperation began in 1970, national positions were divergent, with France having adopted a critical position on Israel after the Six Day War while Germany felt a very strong commitment toward the Jewish State for obvious historical reasons. …