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EU gestures will not change reality on the ground

January 23, 2014 at 5:34 am

The question of how to secure peace between Israel and Palestine, and what international powers do to secure it has vexed successive generations of politicians and diplomats.

In recent months, peace talks have resumed, initiated by the US Secretary of State, John Kerry. It took significant effort to get both Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table, after a stalemate of several years. Across the board, hopes are not high for an agreement, although Kerry has insisted that a deal will be reached by April.

As these talks progress – however slowly – the question of how international powers can impact the peace process have become pressing once again. This is particularly illustrated by recent statements from the European Union.

Over the years, the EU has generally been tougher on Israel and more supportive to Palestine than the United States. All EU states universally consider Israeli settlements illegal under international law; as a body, the EU has insisted it will not recognise any changes to the 1967 borders, unless they are agreed between the parties; and it is the largest donor of aid to the autonomous Palestinian areas. In recent years, it has toughened its rhetoric, condemning Israel’s blockade of Gaza as “collective punishment” and labelling several military incursions as “excessive” and “disproportionate”. In July this year, strict new rules were published setting out EU funds can be distributed to Israeli organisations.

Yet these statements and guidelines have had little impact. The EU’s latest move is to offer an incentive to both parties to engage in peace talks. This week, it promised both Israel and the Palestinians better access to European markets and “unprecedented” political and economic aid if the conflict is resolved. In a statement on Monday, EU foreign ministers offered closer cultural and scientific links as well as trade and investment support. “The EU will provide an unprecedented package of European political, economic, and security support to both parties in the contest of a final status agreement,” said the statement.

In its reporting of the offer, the Jerusalem Post noted that the EU often fills announcements on the peace process “with vinegar toward Israel” but has “decided this month to add some honey”. But it is not all carrot and no stick. On Tuesday, the EU warned Israel not to construct new West Bank settlements after the upcoming release of Palestinian prisoners at the end of December. Israel recently announced new construction to offset the prisoner releases (which were agreed as part of a deal to bring both parties back to the negotiating table after the long hiatus). An EU spokesman said that if settlement construction begins and current peace talks fall apart, it will hold Israel responsible.

So what does all of this tell us about the EU’s role in the peace process? On the announcement of the incentive measures on Monday, the EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, said that the bloc wanted to throw its economic weight behind an agreement. “It’s a good word, ‘unprecedented’,” she said. “It is meant to send the strongest signal possible that we really want this agreement to happen. It’s difficult.”

Although the EU may really want an agreement to happen, however, it is ultimately unable to enact any real change on the ground. The peace process remains – as it always has been – monopolised by the US. While issuing occasional harsh criticisms of Israel, the EU retains strong economic and trade links to the country. Around a third of Israel’s exports go to the EU, and the Euro-Mediterranean Agreement grants free trade in industrial products. Meanwhile, the 28 nation bloc gives substantial aid to the Palestinians and backs its calls for a two-state solution – but does not push this agenda forward in any meaningful way. Some activists say that its strong economic relationship with Israel – not to mention collaboration on scientific research and other areas – undermines this nominal support for Palestine.

Ultimately, while greater collaboration with the EU may be appealing to both sides, the offer is unlikely to be a game changer. The statement appears to be a gesture of support for the peace process, rather than a serious attempt to change the facts on the ground. Ironically, it may underscore the EU’s lack of real influence in the conflict.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.