It is generally assumed that there can be no progress in resolving the Israel – Palestine conflict without leadership from the US. As Brent Snowcroft, the former US National Security Adviser, said in his article in the Financial Times on April 14, in which he called for Obama to risk all for a Middle East peace deal, "The Palestinian question stands out as the one issue in the Middle East where nothing can be accomplished without active American leadership". This claim is repeated by all sides and accepted by most commentators and critics; but given that US politics is so dominated by pro-Israel interests, and Congress contains very few dissenting voices, this is a cause of great pessimism. Europe limps along behind the US, the US is incapable of standing up to Israeli extremism as President Obama has demonstrated so clearly, and the situation of the Palestinian people gets ever worse.
However, this assumption that nothing can change without a shift in US policy needs to be challenged. The EU actually has enormous potential leverage and influence which it fails to exercise. Given that the people of the EU are increasingly critical of Israel, it is important that European campaigners should exert more pressure for a change in EU policy.
It was a European Union poll in 2003 that first drew attention to the wide gap between the opinion of the people of Europe and the policies of the European Union. This showed that 59% of Europeans considered Israel to be a greater threat to world peace than Iran or North Korea. Various subsequent polls have confirmed these findings. The BBC World Service poll published in March 2007, found that people in Europe, by large majorities, had a negative view of Israel. The figures were 77% in Germany, 68% in Greece, 66% in France, 65% in the UK, 58% in Italy, 60% in Portugal, 49% in Poland and 45% in Hungary. And the ICM poll commissioned by the Middle East Monitor and others, whose field work was done in January 2011 in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, the Netherlands and Britain showed that 53% of Europeans see the siege of Gaza as illegal, 60% see Israel's 2008/9 invasion of Gaza as illegal and 64% saw the state's attack on the Freedom Flotilla as illegal.
There are two major interventions in Israel-Palestine policy undertaken by the EU. One is its trade policy and the other it's Aid and Development Cooperation with the Palestinian Authority. Both claim to be supportive of peace and justice for the Palestinians, but both support the Israeli occupation, oppression of the Palestinians and Israel's constant breaches of international law.
The EU-Israel Association Agreement forms the legal basis governing relations between Israel and the European Union. It incorporates free-trade arrangements for industrial goods and concessionary arrangements for trade in agricultural produce. Under this agreement the European Union is Israel's major trading partner, with total trade amounting to €20.2 billion in 2009. The EU is Israel's major source of imports and is the second largest market for exports behind the US (covering 29.3% and 32.9% of the export market respectively). EU investment in Israel amounted to €3.5 billion in 2007 while Israeli investment in the EU was €6.3 billion.
Article 2 of the Association Agreement states: "Relations between the Parties, as well as all the provisions of the Agreement itself, shall be based on respect for human rights and democratic principles, which guides the internal and international policy and constitutes an essential element of the Agreement". There have been weighty legal opinions and votes carried in the European Parliament to say that the Agreement should be suspended because Israel is so abusive of international human rights conventions and is in constant breach of international law. The International Court of Justice, which is the highest authority in the international system, gave an advisory opinion in 2004 which said that the route of the Separation Wall and the existence of the settlements were in complete breach of international law. The EU did nothing. Similarly, various reports on Operation Cast Lead, the siege of Gaza and other grave breaches of international law led to no action by the EU.
Thus, the EU is Israel's major economic partner, under a treaty that requires respect for human rights and democratic principles in relation to internal and international policy, Israel is in gross breach of these principles and no action is taken. Instead the EU proposes to upgrade the Agreement, but the proposal is on hold following a vote in the European Parliament to postpone the issue.
On Aid and Development Cooperation, the European Union is the largest provider in the occupied Palestinian territories. From 1994 to the end of 2009, the European Union committed €4.6 billion. The European commission states that the overall objective of the European Union's support to the Palestinian Authority "is to ensure the creation of a viable, independent and democratic Palestinian state living in harmony with Israel and its other neighbours".
The beginning of the Oslo peace process led to a massive increase in foreign aid. More than $10 billion dollars was dispersed between 1994 and 2008 and substantially more has been since. This is one of the highest disbursements, sustained over time, of per capita aid worldwide. The European Union has been the largest donor since 1994.
The original aim was to support the Oslo peace process, in order to achieve a two state solution to the conflict and help build the institutions of the Palestinian National Authority. But as Dr Anne Le More has argued, after 17 years, the reality is continuing occupation and continuing fragmentation and erosion of the Palestinian lands, which makes the likelihood of the establishment of a Palestinian state on the lands occupied since 1967 increasingly unlikely. Since 1994 Palestinian lands have become smaller and smaller enclaves, holding Palestinian people in areas of high population density with dreadful restrictions, complex permit systems, military checkpoints, the Wall and Israeli- and illegal settler-only roads. At the same time the living conditions of the population have deteriorated very badly ever since the mid-90s, largely because of Israel's control and closure of the occupied territories. Thus, the Palestinians become ever more dependent on aid as their own economy withers. The net result is that EU assistance relieves Israel of its duties under international law to provide humanitarian relief within territories it occupies and has been instead used to subsidize the ever-worsening effects of the occupation.
The inability of the Palestinian Authority to deliver an end to military occupation and improve living conditions, coupled with mismanagement and allegations of corruption, has led to its mounting unpopularity and is widely thought to help explain the electoral victory of Hamas in the internationally scrutinised and approved elections of January 2006. After Hamas won the election, instead of supporting the government of national unity, the EU joined the US-led boycott.
The EU therefore changed its funding mechanism in order to bypass the Hamas-led government by transferring funds directly to the bank accounts of Palestinian authority employees. From February 2008 a new funding mechanism was introduced so that the EU dealt directly with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Thus the EU has used its aid to relieve Israel of its obligations under international law to care for the welfare of people under occupation and therefore makes the occupation cheaper and easier for Israel. The EU has used its aid, understandably at first, to support the Oslo peace accord but even though it became clear that Israel had no intention of allowing the Palestinians to have a state on the land occupied in 1967, the EU continued to enhance its trade and political relationship with Israel, imposed no sanctions for its constant breaches of international law, and yet used its aid to manipulate Palestinian politics, refused to respect the results of the 2006 elections and helped to divide and weaken the political representation of the Palestinian people.
The conclusion we must draw is that it is time for people across the European Union to hold the EU to account for what is being done in our name, with our money. Current policy is guilty of gross double standards and clearly breaches EU claims to stand for human rights, democracy and the rule of law. In addition I believe that US policy would be challenged much more strongly, and President Obama would have a better chance of changing US policy, if the EU had the courage to stand by the principles it claims to believe in and uphold.
The author is a former UK Secretary of State for International Development (1997-2003)
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.