The EU needs to woo Israel if it’s to be a peacemaker

The EU needs to woo Israel if it’s to be a peacemaker

Opinion piece (Europe's world)
Clara Marina O'Donnell
01 April 2011
Sharon Pardo highlights a number of important ways in which the EU can support the Middle East peace process, not least by encouraging internal Palestinian reconciliation. But if the EU wants to play a larger role in the peace process it also needs to improve its image in Israel.

Barack Obama has made the Arab-Israeli conflict at top priority for his administration, and hopes the peace talks that began in early September will lead to a final agreement within a year. But by negotiating while the Palestinians remain divided, President Obama is repeating the mistakes of the Bush administration. So long as intra-Palestinian feuding persists and Hamas rules Gaza independently, President Abbas cannot say he speaks for all Palestinians. Most important of all, from Israel’s perspective, he cannot guarantee an end to violence. Hamas reminded the international community of this when it killed four Israeli settlers just before the start of the peace talks. Under these conditions, the Israeli government – which relies on the support of several parties opposed to the compromises required for a viable two-state solution – has no incentive to make concessions.

There has been a growing acknowledgment across the EU that the various Palestinian factions must be reconciled if there is to be a lasting peace. But while Pardo may believe that some in the U.S. government now support engaging with Hamas, others remain opposed; as does the Israeli government. The EU can therefore play a helpful role by convincing Washington and Israel of the need to encourage the Palestinians to form a government of national unity. And as the leading donor to the Palestinians, the EU should also consider contributing more directly to the forging of such a government.

But if the EU wants to become more active in the Middle East peace process and encourage Israel to embrace bold initiatives, it needs to improve its image in Israel. Despite the close trade and cultural ties that Pardo highlights many Israelis believe that European public opinion, and several EU governments are not sensitive to their security concerns. The result has been Israel’s reluctance to grant the EU a significant diplomatic role in resolving the conflict.

The EU could increase its leverage by presenting itself as a true friend to Israel whose full assistance for the peace process includes steadfast support for Israel’s security. The EU’s member states could offer to monitor weapons smuggling providing Israel re-opens Gaza’s borders to trade. As Pardo suggests, Europeans could offer a strong peacekeeping force as part of a final peace deal.

Sharon Pardo is right to argue that the EU should try to use the prospect of deeper bi-lateral ties to encourage Israel to make more concessions. But even if its member states were to go so far as offering Israel the prospect of EU membership, it would still be hard for them to lean on Israel. Washington is by far the most influential outside player in the region, yet it too has encountered significant difficulties over the last year in getting Israel to re-commit fully to the peace process. It’s hard to see how under the present difficult circumstances, the EU could be much more effective.