The European Union is at a crossroads when it comes to the Palestine-Israel conflict. It can continue to provide cover for Israeli breaches of international law and oppression of the Palestinian people or it can stand up both to Israel and to its chief ally, the United States of America, helping to bring about a just peace.
Sadly for Palestinians, the EU has to date chosen the former and the evidence is there for all to see. Google the "EU acts against Israel" and you will struggle to find any sources that report on action. The one exception perhaps is that in 2015 the EU moved to publish guidelines on labelling products made in Israeli settlements. Even then, this was presented as a technical move, rather than the first step on the road to banning goods from illegal colonies from entering the lucrative EU market.
To date, there has been no evidence that labelling has served to dissuade Israel from expanding its illegal settlement enterprise.
The only other EU action worthy of note came in 2016 when eight EU countries wrote an official protest letter to Israel, demanding over €30,000 ($35,400) in compensation for confiscating and demolishing structures and infrastructure which the countries had built in "Area C" of the West Bank, which is under full Israeli control.
While the EU saw the aid money as serving a humanitarian purpose, Israel rejected this claiming the structures were constructed without permit. It is generally extremely difficult for Palestinians to obtain permits and it is important to note that Palestinians reject the notion they need permits from Israel to build on their land.
A Google search on "the EU condemns Israel" is much more fruitful. The EU has an excellent record for condemnation. This relates to illegal settlement construction, house and commercial structure demolitions, house evictions and even the passing in Israel's Knesset of the Nation State Law, through which Israel effectively declared itself an Apartheid state. The EU condemned Palestinian rocket fire from Gaza but not the Israeli killing of over 200 Palestinians marching peacefully to return to the homes from which they were expelled in 1948.
The EU did not condemn US President Trump's recognition of Israel's "sovereignty" over the illegally occupied Syrian Golan Heights, choosing instead to reaffirm its position that "the European Union, in accordance with international law, does not recognise Israel's sovereignty over the territories it occupied since July 1967, including the Golan Heights, and does not consider them as part of Israeli territory,"
More recently, the EU has been largely silent on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's promise during the recent elections to extend Israeli sovereignty over all illegal Jewish only settlements, a de facto annexation. It was left to Guy Verhofstadt, who leads a powerful bloc in the European Parliament, to comment describing the announcement as "shameful populism" and that it would amount to a violation of international law.
The above shows that the EU will condemn Israeli actions but will do little to bring any accountability that will force its leaders to change course. On the contrary, it acts as good cop, bad cop. It will condemn Israeli actions but then will laud it as a democracy and hi-tech producing nation. Its office in Israel consistently lauds Israel, while its office in Ramallah celebrates welcome but small-scale projects with the Palestinians.
The EU's rejection of Trump's moves on Jerusalem, UNRWA and the Golan and lack of action to pressure Israel to end its illegal acts has been inadequate if it wants to preserve its policy that the resolution to the conflict is based on a Two-Sate solution, that settlements are illegal and that unilateral actions by Israel and the US will not contribute to peace.
The EU is now at the crossroads because Trump's much touted "ultimate deal" is about to be published. If the various leaks are accurate then the EU's longstanding position on the way forward will not be part of it. What will it then do if the deal does not meet the minimum requirements of international law? What if settlements and a Palestinian state are taken off the table? What will the EU's policy be then?
A welcome intervention has come from 37 high ranking former European politicians who see the dangers on the horizon that Trump's Administration is creating. In a letter to the Guardian newspaper they caution: "Unfortunately, the current US administration has departed from longstanding US policy and distanced itself from established international legal norms … it is crucial for Europe to be vigilant and act strategically."
They call on Europe to "embrace and promote a plan that respects the basic principles of international law as reflected in the agreed EU parameters for a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict". Europe, they continue, should insist on "a viable peace requires the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel on borders based on the pre-1967 lines with mutually agreed, minimal and equal land swaps; with Jerusalem as the capital for both states; with security arrangements that address legitimate concerns and respect the sovereignty of each side and with an agreed, fair solution to the question of Palestine refugees."
"[It] should reject any plan that does not meet this standard", the letter adds, calling on the EU to "formally reaffirm the internationally agreed parameters for a two-state solution. Doing this in advance of the US plan establishes the EU's criteria for supporting American efforts and facilitates a coherent and unified European response once the plan is published."
The letter's signatories urge European governments to "further commit to scaling up efforts to protect the viability of a future two-state outcome". They warn that it is of the utmost importance that the EU and all member states "actively ensure the implementation of relevant UN security council resolutions – including consistent differentiation in accordance with UN security council resolution 2334, between Israel in its recognised and legitimate borders, and its illegal settlements in the occupied territories."
However, simply insisting on long-standing positions in the face of a Trump administration which argues its plan will not be based on the same "tired" and "failed" parameters will be rejected by the Americans. What is needed is some form of disruption; this could be to respond to the Palestinians' call for recognition of Palestine as a state on the 1967 borders and Jerusalem as a shared capital.
Yes, that would put the EU on a collision course with the Trump administration and of course an emboldened Netanyahu. However, facing an "ultimate deal" that will be completely biased in Israel's favour, the EU would finally move from talk and condemnation to action that could finally reduce the asymmetry between Israel and the Palestinians. This could bring peace closer to being achieved than through Trump's anti-peace deal.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.