Dr Dimitris Bouris is a Research Fellow at the European Neighbourhood Policy Chair, at the College of Europe (Natolin). He holds a PhD from the University of Warwick and is the author of The European Union and Occupied Palestinian Territories: State-building without a State (Routledge, 2014) for which he was selected as Routledge Politics and International Relations author of the month for February 2014. Dimitris is currently co-editing (with Tobias Schumacher) a book on the Revised European Neighbourhood Policy which will be published by Palgrave in 2015. He has written scholarly articles in peer-reviewed academic journals such as Mediterranean Politics, European Security, The Hague Journal on the Rule of Law, the Journal of Contemporary European Research and Political Perspectives. Dimitris has also written short articles and op-eds for Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (with Nathan Brown), EU Observer, Gulf News, European Voice and Open Democracy. His research focuses on the European Neighbourhood Policy, the Arab Spring, the European Union’s role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as well as on the broader domains of peacebuilding, state-building, security sector reform and conflict resolution.
Over the past few decades, the European Union has been instrumental in setting up the parameters upon which the so-called Middle East Peace Process was funded and in “feeding” the international community with ideas on what would constitute a fair solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.1
For all this time, the EU approach has been that a Palestinian state can only be established through negotiations with Israel. Different formulas have been tried based on the logic that if Palestinians embarked on a state- and institution-building exercise, this would eventually go hand-in-hand with positive developments on the political front and the eventual establishment and recognition of the state of Palestine.
This was the logic behind the 1993 Oslo Accords and when it became clear that the establishment of a Palestinian state was not looming on the horizon, the EU, with the Berlin Declaration, reaffirmed its commitment to “the continuing and unqualified Palestinian right to self-determination including the option of a state“. The declaration also expressed the EU’s readiness to consider the recognition of a Palestinian State “in due course“. The reason behind this declaration was to prevent Yasser Arafat from declaring the state of Palestine unilaterally and thus “jeopardising” the negotiations paradigm.
Following the eruption of the second intifada in 2000 the effort to keep the negotiations paradigm alive was continued with the Roadmap, which required “a clear, unambiguous acceptance by both parties of the goal of a negotiated settlement”. The confidence-building logic of the Roadmap, which was based on three phases and envisioned parallel steps to be taken by the Israelis and the Palestinians, did not bring about a Palestinian state by the end of 2005 as originally envisaged.
Following Hamas’s victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections, the “West Bank first” strategy was adopted with the hope that negotiations would again lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state by the end of 2008. Instead, not only did a Palestinian state not come into being but Gaza was also subject to a devastating war by Israel.
The international community in general and the EU in particular did not want to see the death of the negotiation paradigm; instead of burying it, though, they decided to put it on a life support mechanism. The help came from the Palestinian leadership (legitimised by the “West Bank first” strategy) and former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who presented a plan entitled, “Ending the Occupation, Establishing the state”. The logic of the plan was similar to that of the Oslo Accords; within a two-year period, the Palestinians would build their institutions and improve the security situation (mainly for Israel rather than for the Palestinians) which would lead to the recognition of a Palestinian state. Billions of euros were disbursed by the international community and the EU to support Fayyad’s plan which served as an invaluable bottom-up approach, the progress of which did not go hand-in-hand with top-down negotiations.
The failure of the “proximity talks” orchestrated by the Obama administration and Senator George Mitchell, together with the threat that the Palestinian leadership would be submitting an application to the UN Security Council for recognition of the state of Palestine, prompted the EU, in May 2011, to declare its readiness to recognise a Palestinian State “when appropriate”. The declaration was once more an effort to “keep the parties talking” and prevent unilateral moves by the Palestinians; it did not, however, clarify the basis on which the “appropriateness” would be decided. While the Palestinians achieved in the end something less than full recognition through their UN upgrade to “non-member observer state”, the parties continued “talking” under the auspices of US Secretary of State John Kerry even while Israel was inviting tenders for building more than 700 housing units in occupied Jerusalem’s Gilo neighbourhood. According to a Peace Now report, investment in such illegal settlements grew by at least 38 per cent between 2009 and 2011 while invitations to bid for building contracts in the settlements had tripled since 2013 on average compared to the 2009-2013 period of Netanyahu’s previous administration.
The negotiations path that the international community has led for decades now appears to be blocked, if not altogether dead. The negotiation paradigm has taken different forms across the decades and has failed repeatedly. Netanyahu’s recent re-election following his comments that there will be no Palestinian state while he is prime minister makes it more than urgent for the EU to rethink its policies and attitudes towards the Israel-Palestine conflict in a manner that will enable a fresh approach. What was left from the negotiation and peace process is now finished and a fresh process should be put into full swing. In other words, using the lexicon of the conflict to-date, the EU should start creating facts on the ground.
One way to do this is by legitimising the state of Israel whilst de-legitimising the occupation. Since July 2013, the EU has put in place the so-called “Guidelines” which prohibit the issuing of grants, funding, prizes or scholarships to Israeli entities that have been established beyond the 1967 borders. This means that EU financial assistance will no longer go to Israeli entities based in the occupied Palestinian territories. Although the “Guidelines” have a very limited impact on the Israeli economy they have symbolic, normative and practical reverberations which cannot be ignored, which is why Israel’s response to their publication has been frenzied.
Another way to legitimise the state of Israel and de-legitimise the occupation is the stepping up of efforts to address another key territorial issue, which is the labelling of products originating in Israeli settlements. The effort was led by the former EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Catherine Ashton, after EU member states such as Denmark, Ireland and the United Kingdom had already issued similar guidelines to their citizens. While the new labelling regulations were supposed to be enacted by the end of 2013 the process has been frozen, although during her first days in office Ashton’s successor, Federica Mogherini, hinted that the EU might use financial “incentives and disincentives” to address the realities on the ground.
Finally, the waves of Palestinian state recognition by governments and parliaments within the EU should swell. In October 2014, Sweden became the first EU member to recognise the state of Palestine. In the months that followed, the British, Irish, Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, Danish and Belgian parliaments, as well as the EU parliament, all voted in favour of motions to give the state recognition. While such motions are largely symbolic it should not be overlooked that, as David Horovitz has put it, when it comes to the UN arena the EU is seen as the barometer of international legitimacy. British Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg’s recent statement that if Netanyahu rules out a Palestinian state and expands West Bank settlements, “the world, including the British parliament, would have no option, but to recognise a Palestinian state”, should be followed by concrete actions and not remain empty rhetoric.
The Israeli general election results look likely to produce a right-wing government in Israel under a prime minister who has done everything possible to destroy any chance of a two-state solution (and who has been committed to building settlements as if there is no tomorrow); a government which will probably include members such as Avigdor Lieberman, who recently proposed the beheading of Arabs who are not loyal to Israel. A change of approach is needed urgently and desperately. While European action might not have much effect in the short-term, the EU’s real ability to play a catalytic role in agenda-setting in the long-term and feed the international community with ideas should not be underestimated. What remains to be seen is whether the EU will manage to live up to expectations.
 Bouris, D. (2014) The EU and Occupied Palestinian Territories: state-building without a state, Oxon: Routledge.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.