14 December 2010
Claire Spencer

Dr Claire Spencer

Senior Research Fellow, Middle East and North Africa Programme & Second Century Initiative


The revelation that 26 former European Union (EU) officials, foreign ministers and heads of state signed a letter at the beginning of December urging EU leaders to step up the pressure on Israel to conclude a peace deal with the Palestinians will have come as no surprise to those aware of the frustrations Europeans often express behind the scenes.

The leaked letter proposes that a deadline of April 2011 be set for concrete progress towards peace to be made, failing which, the upgrading of Israel's relations with the EU be suspended pending the freezing of settlements.

The sense of urgency expressed should not be taken lightly. Equally, proposing that the EU use its bilateral relations with Israel to pressure Prime Minister Netanyahu's ruling coalition into suspending a policy that even the US has been unable to stop is a risky strategy. Short-term pressure and externally imposed deadlines have rarely changed the tack of any Israeli government, regardless of its political character.

EU states, collectively and individually, contribute over 1 billion euros a year in support of a negotiated settlement that has routinely been deferred to the United States to broker and conclude. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is now leading fresh attempts to restart indirect talks between Israelis and Palestinians, direct talks having stalled over Israel's resumption of settlement activity in the West Bank and East Jerusalem since the end of September. As a result, European leaders again find themselves in the position of bystanders to a process over which they have only ever enjoyed indirect influence.

In the current stalemate, a better approach for Europe would be to encourage a wider range of Israeli, American and indeed European opinion to consider what the longer term consequences of Israel's actions might be, above all for Israel itself.

The urgency of the latest appeal is prompted by the deteriorating situation for Palestinians in East Jerusalem, and the dwindling prospects for a two-state solution. Without improvements in each of these, however, Israel stands to lose as much, if not more, over the next ten, fifteen or twenty years.

Allowing indeterminate borders and settlements to continue needing military protection, unrecognised by the United Nations and opposed by the totality of Israel's neighbours and a growing number of its own citizens, augurs badly for Israel's prospects for normalisation in and beyond its immediate neighbourhood.

In an ideal world, Israel, with its world class scientific, technological and human resources, should be aspiring to be the economic motor of its immediate region. It should be securing its competitive advantage in areas such as the Gulf, where Asian investors (and Turkey) are increasingly taking the lead, and using these to consolidate its global position in other emerging markets as well as Europe.

In a less than ideal world, however, the choices made by the Israeli leadership continue to be out of sync with global trends. Policies are tactical, short-term and driven by the immediate security threats posed by Iran and Islamist movements such as Hezbollah in Lebanon, not by a longer-term strategy that can be clearly articulated. The drive towards settling the West Bank and East Jerusalem is based on an idealised and ideological vision of the past, rather than an assessment of how sustainable this path towards securing Israel might prove to be in future.

Should Israel's support base in the US Congress weaken over the next decade or more, and the EU emerge from the constraints of its own past in relation to Israel, the picture will look very different. Precisely because they have seized on these longer-term dangers, critics of current Israeli policy within Jewish diaspora communities and Israel itself are no longer willing to be silenced as being unpatriotic or engaged in delegitimising the very existence of Israel itself.

It is not for the EU or European leaders to determine the content or outcome of this debate, but rather to support and defend those who want a much more broadly-based discussion about Israel's longer-term strategic future to take place.

The resulting strategy is for Israelis to decide, but it is for Europeans to persist in posing the hard questions and pointing out the awkward realities. The EU, after all, has its own core interests to defend, financial and economic as well as strategic. Sooner or later the EU may also have to confront a deferred dilemma of its own: namely, how to respond to a Palestinian unilateral declaration of independent statehood, if, as some predict, the internecine struggles among the Palestinians, encouraged by wider international support, lead to this eventuality before the end of 2011.