For more than thirty years the European Union (EU) has issued statements critical of Israel, and has been supportive of the Palestinian cause. The EU Venice Declaration of 1980, the first statement it issued on foreign policy, supported the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination; asserted the unacceptability of any unilateral initiative to alter the status of Jerusalem; proclaimed the need for Israel to end its territorial occupation since 1967; and declared that Israeli settlements were an obstacle to peace.
Since the 1990s the EU has been a major aid contributor to Palestinians, though its monetary assistance did not substantially improve the Palestinian economy. This economy suffered from corruption, lack of a satisfactory legal framework and competent administration, absence of democratic practices, and the incompetence of Yasser Arafat, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority leader who instigated the disastrous second Intifada in 2000.
The EU has been critical of many of the activities of Israel, including the alleged treatment of the Arab minority and of the Bedouins, but particularly and unrelentingly about Israeli settlements. On December 10, 2012 the EU issued a statement, “all agreements between the State of Israel and the European Union must unequivocally and explicitly indicate their inapplicability to the territories occupied by Israel in 1967, namely the Golan Heights, the West Bank including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip.
The EU discouraged companies from trading with and investing in settlements and suggested banning imports of settlement products. At the same time Catherine Ashton, the head of EU foreign policy, pressed Israel to cancel the building of 3,000 new settler homes that, in accordance with EU policy, she considered “an obstacle to peace.” That EU policy had been made clear even before the European Commission poll taken in 2003 that the “country posing the greatest threat to world peace was Israel.” It was unclear whether the particular homes to which Ashton was referring are an obstacle to peace in Syria, Egypt, Lebanon, or Iraq, issues with which she seems somewhat unconcerned.
Whatever the answer, this did not prevent the EU decision to implement the December 10 statement by issuing a directive approved on June 28, 2013 and made known on July 16, 2013. This was a decision by the EU to ban all funding, collaboration, scholarships, research grants, and awards to “Israeli entities” in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. All future EU agreements with Israel must have a clause stating that the settlements are not part of the State of Israel.
By its declaration the EU was unilaterally deciding that the borders of Israel did not embrace East Jerusalem, the West Bank, the Gaza Strip, or the Golan Heights. It was making a distinction between the State of Israel and the “occupied territories” to which the ban on relations on factors such as economics, science, culture, sports, and academia will apply.
This is an extraordinary unwise and unhelpful decision at a time when Secretary of State John Kerry is making his sixth visit in four months to the region in his hope to revive peace talks between Israel and Palestinians. He must be troubled that the EU decision on the borders of the State of Israel may make the Palestinians unwilling to enter into direct negotiations. That unwillingness has been rewarded by the constant EU argument, one that was repeated on the very day that the EU was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, that Israeli settlements are illegal under international law and constitute an obstacle to peace. The EU argument is belied by the reality that facts and the history of the area prove the opposite; Israeli settlement has never constituted an obstacle to peace. Nevertheless, Ashton persists in saying that “settlement activity is detrimental to current peace efforts.”
The EU position makes it more likely that the Palestinian will reject negotiations. If they do agree to enter into direct negotiations, they will certainly continue to insist on a number of pre-conditions, including freezing all settlement construction and acceptance of the ceasefire lines of 1949 as the borders of a Palestinian state.
There are two issues involved in this. One is the bypassing of all international and bilateral agreements on the need for negotiations to decide on the final status of the disputed territories. The Israeli-Palestinian Interim Agreement of September 28, 1995 is clear on this point. Article XXXI states, “Neither side shall initiate or take any step that will change the status of the West Bank or the Gaza Strip pending the outcome of the permanent status negotiations.” Legally, the demarcation lines between the parties of 1949 are not permanent boundaries; they do not purport to establish definitive boundaries between the parties. All issues are to be negotiated between the parties.
The other is the misapplication of EU activity that should more properly be focused on the development of the Palestinian economy and the introduction of human freedoms, rather on than the disputed settlements. The EU, after all, could be a major player in the Middle East with its own economy accounting for almost 20 percent of world trade and including a considerable number of real democracies among its 27 members. It could be playing a role in helping deal with current problems: Iran’s nuclear proliferation; Islamist extremism in general; the development of terrorist networks; the recognition of Hezbollah as a terrorist organization; equality for women in the Middle East; and encouragement of human rights and democracy in the Arab countries.
It serves no useful purpose to insist that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the main security problem in the Middle East. It is one thing to propose two states as the only feasible solution to the conflict, even if there is disagreement on the issue. It is another to attempt to resolve the conflict by putting direct economic and political pressure on Israel. The EU has done a great disservice to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, and indeed has been counterproductive by making it less likely to come into effect.