Europe’s bite (almost) as good as its bark on Palestinian statehood

Soon, the center stage of the Middle East peace process will move from European capitals to the U.N. headquarters in New York

Yossi Mekelberg

Published: Updated:

In an extraordinary 24 hours last week in Strasbourg, Luxembourg and Geneva, the Palestinian question returned to the international arena center stage. Europe after many years of wavering may have emerged as a crucial player in kick-starting the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Three vital decisions were taken, reflecting Europe’s loss of patience with the Israeli government’s deliberately intransigent policies, which leave finding a peaceful solution to the conflict with the Palestinians unfeasible. Also considering efforts in the Security Council, led by Jordan and France, to recognize Palestinian statehood, it should not come as a surprise that Israel’s most circulated newspaper described last week’s developments as a ‘Political Tsunami’ for Israel.

In Strasbourg, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution supporting ‘in principle Palestinian statehood.’ This followed a string of similar moves in a matter of two months on other parts of the continent. First it was the Swedish government that officially recognized Palestine in October, followed by the parliaments of the UK, France, Spain, Ireland and Luxembourg. In Geneva, 126 of the 196 signatories of the Geneva Conventions convened to discuss violations of international humanitarian law in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The meeting produced a chastising 10 point declaration on Israel’s, and also Hamas’, behavior in the occupied territories. Israel was, among other things, criticized for indiscriminate attacks on civilians, schools and hospitals. Finally, in Strasbourg, the EU’s second-highest court has ordered EU member states to remove the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas from the list of terrorist groups, for legal reasons. For now, however, the court ordered that the organization’s assets remain frozen for three months pending an appeal.

To the Israeli leaders, it may have come as a surprise tidal wave of resolutions against their country, but considering years of failed attempts to bring Israel to change its policies in the occupied territories, it should have been easier to predict than the ones in nature.

Still, they might, unlike the disastrous consequences of Tsunamis, have some positive impact. This could potentially serve as a wakeup call for Israeli society. They may yet realize that maintaining the occupation in the West Bank, the misery of Gaza and preventing the Palestinians from realizing their aspirations for self-determination is not a cost-free exercise. Most of the decisions taken right now are nonbinding, however, they will be increasingly difficult to ignore. The Palestinian bid for statehood presently enjoys overwhelming support from many countries. The EU Parliament voted in favor of a Palestinian statehood in a vast majority of 498 to 88 in favor. The transition towards binding resolutions might be rather quick. The Israeli people can either support their government’s current detached and political self-serving approach, which claims that all of these developments are a mere reflection that the entire worlds is against Israel, or can take a more considered and complex view. The latter would not necessary accept every criticism leveled against Israel at face value, but at the same time would admit that the crux of the matter is the continuation of the occupation of Palestinian land and the depriving of millions of Palestinians from enjoying basic political and civil rights. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as some of his members of government, was way too obvious in his response to these series of decisions and declarations. Netanyahu accused Europe of not learning anything from the Holocaust, and blamed European countries of hypocrisy for criticizing Israel, while removing the Hamas from the list of terrorist groups. His foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, in another of his undiplomatic belligerent acts, went as far as refusing to meet his Swedish counterpart Margot Wallstroem during her upcoming visit to Israel next month. This was a rather juvenile reaction to Sweden’s recent recognition of Palestinian statehood. The upcoming elections in Israel in March next year will only further polarize the debate in Israel on the Palestinian issue, and more populist gestures from the Israeli government will only accelerate. However, it is also a great opportunity for the Israeli voters to determine the future of their country. Do they want a government which embroils them in endless conflict, not only with the Palestinians, but also confrontation with a majority of the international community? Or would they like a new beginning with a government which will start to withdraw from the brink of a third Intifada and international isolation?

Israel should have seen this coming

Soon, the center stage of the Middle East peace process will move from European capitals to the U.N. headquarters in New York. Last week, also on Wednesday, Jordan submitted a draft resolution to the Security Council, which sets clear lines for ending the Israeli occupation and establishing a contiguous and viable Palestinian state by no later than 2017. The proposed resolution is on behalf of Arab members of the United Nations, who are represented on the Security Council by Jordan. The well balanced Jordanian proposal, to which Israel is objecting, injects the necessary sense of urgency to the stalled peace process. Adopting and adhering to a strict deadline is one of the best indicators of sincerity for the negotiating parties. Procrastination and indecision have become the main methods of blocking a peace agreement. Albeit the fact that the resolution emphasizes the need to ensure Israeli and Palestinian independence and security, the Israeli government still portrays this resolution as hostile.

On the contrary, this proposed resolution, as the ones by European countries to recognize Palestinian statehood, stem from frustration and a sudden sense that without a last ditch diplomatic effort the two-state solution will soon become obsolete. There is a school of thought that argues that this solution has already been superseded by demography and Israeli settlements’ policy, let alone a complete breakdown in trust between the two negotiating partners. The flood of international recognition of Palestine as a state ‘deprives’ Israel of a key asset in extracting concessions from the Palestinians. If the Security Council elevates the status of Palestine from that of a non-state observer, to one of full membership to the United Nations, then the occupation is one of a ‘state’ and not of a less clearly defined territory. Consequently, negotiations would be between two recognized states, though with great disparity of power, rather than the more ambivalent current situation.
Israel should have seen this coming, but preferred to ignore all the numerous signs. Its leadership is opting to blame the world for taking these decisions out of spite for Israel and with complete disregard for Israel’s long-term security. On the contrary, the international community by trying to salvage the peace negotiations and assist in reaching a lasting solution may in fact save the Zionist dream of having a Jewish and democratic state. With elections around the corner the sudden diplomatic sense of urgency to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian question presents the Israeli voters with a clearer idea of the consequences of voting for another Netanyahu government. The choice remains either the vote for a government which will pursue further building of settlements and obstruction of peace, or one which will be courageous enough to genuinely pursue peace.

Yossi Mekelberg is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East and North Africa Program at the Royal Institute of International Affairs, Chatham House, where he is involved with projects and advisory work on conflict resolution, including Track II negotiations. He is also the Director of the International Relations and Social Sciences Program at Regent’s University in London, where he has taught since 1996. Previously, he was teaching at King’s College London and Tel Aviv University. Mekelberg’s fields of interest are international relations theory, international politics of the Middle East, human rights, and international relations and revolutions. He is a member of the London Committee of Human Rights Watch, serving on the Advocacy and Outreach committee. Mekelberg is a regular contributor to the international media on a wide range of international issues and you can find him on Twitter @YMekelberg.

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