The widespread perception among Israeli decision-makers of the European Union’s irrelevance is a perplexing conundrum of Israeli foreign relations. While one would think that a continent-sized institution representing Israel’s largest export market would somehow have more clout, the already limited capacity of the EU to play a constructive role contracts at an alarming rate. This is bad for everyone, but hurts the Palestinians and Israelis most of all. Ironically, despite Europe’s economic and social woes, its loss of influence in this arena is largely self-inflicted.
The recent declaration by the EU Council is a case in point. It grudgingly recognizes Israeli actions toward peace, but leans pro-Palestinian much further than an international body seeking credibility with both sides can allow itself. As a result, many Israeli leaders consider dialogue with the EU apparatus a waste of time: the terse Israeli response to the declaration is the verbal equivalent of shrugged shoulders.
The EU, a union of 27 countries, suffers from a basic structural problem that makes it difficult to produce coherent policy. The pressure to create consensus often leads to repetition of formulations from the past rather than the development of new responses to a changing reality, and not just in relation to Israel and Palestine. But even apart from this, two flaws in EU thinking contribute to the perception of irrelevance.
The first is solipsism. A morally solipsistic viewpoint makes judgments according to a preconceived worldview rather than in relation to results in the real world. The EU statement proclaims the satisfyingly post-colonial principle of illegitimacy of acquiring territories by war and harshly condemns the settlements as illegal. Yet it has nothing to say about the recent statement by Palestinian President Abbas that no Jews will remain in a Palestinian State, which seriously complicates the issue of settlements. Does the EU condone the bigoted idea that Palestine will have no Jews? While solipsistic diplomats in Brussels proclaimed their doctrine, things shifted on the ground, and what emerged was an implicit, if perhaps unintended, endorsement a Judenrein Palestinian State.
The second is static thinking. In defending the statement by the EU Council in a meeting with AJC, one ambassador to Israel from an EU nation stated, “But there is nothing new there.” Indeed. The Council ignored the most glaring development in the conflict. Despite large-scale Israeli withdrawals comprising 85% of the land conquered in 1967; Israeli recognition of the Palestinian people and the PLO; the creation of the PA; the Gaza disengagement; and more, we in the real world confront the stark inability of the Palestinians to recognize the fundamental legitimacy of the Jewish State as the expression of the national right of the Jews to independence. Old thinking represented in the EU statement couches the conflict in terms of a Palestinian State vs. Israeli security. It ignores the deeper issue of the decline in Palestinian peacemaking capacity over the last few years, particularly following the somnolent response to the Olmert plan.
To recapture relevance, a real-world EU document would address the ironic fact that the obsession with settlements has in fact attracted a certain circle of Israelis to support the settler movement, while encouraging the Palestinians to avoid tough decisions.
Fresh thinking might take into consideration experience with settlements elsewhere in the world, where they have proven a resolvable issue the moment the parties agree to make peace. Consider the Baltic republics. Member states of the EU, they started life as independent states with huge Russian settler populations that remained after the Soviet Union withdrew. When the three countries sought EU membership, Brussels conditioned it on guarantying the civil rights of their Russian settler minorities.
What if the Palestinian republic gained the benefit of a 5-10% Jewish minority? This highly educated, technologically adept population could add substantially to the ability of a peaceful Palestine to develop a strong economy and a multicultural, democratic society. Certainly Israel is enriched by the 20% of its citizens who are Palestinian.
Deflating the settler issue would remove it as an obstacle to peace while driving the Palestinians to confront the substantive issues for which the settlements now serve as a convenient avoidance mechanism.
Advancing ideas along these lines could invigorate the EU as a serious force for peace, capable of presenting new and practical ideas and therefore helping actualize its considerable potential clout, something it cannot hope to achieve if it just recycles the battle cries of the 1980s.