Tunnel to Gush Etzion, Justin McIntosh (2004), Wikimedia Commons

From a payer to a player

Time to reframe Europe’s understanding of Israel and Palestine

August 21, 2020

By : Antoine Michon

After months of expectations, July 1 came and went without any dramatic decision pertaining to the future of Israelis and Palestinians. The rest of July and half of August also passed, and still nothing in sight. Quickly, the public debate in Israel and in the occupied Palestinian territory (oPt) shifted back to the coronavirus pandemic and the second wave of infections hitting the region. In Israel, while the threat of a new election is looming, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also facing increasing contestation, with thousands of Israelis protesting an array issues such as corruption, mismanagement of the Covid-19 pandemic, the subsequent economic crisis, police brutality, and last but not least the projects of annexation. Yet, PM Netanyahu seems to have succeeded to temporarily divert public attention with the recent announcement of a normalization deal with the United Arab Emirates, postponing the initial annexation timeline.

Following the revelation of the ‘Deal of the Century’ by President Trump in late January, and a deal with his main opponent Benny Gantz to ensure his reelection in April, the Prime Minister has been taking preliminary measures in order to ‘extend Israeli sovereignty over Judea and Samaria’, all the while trying to limit the spread of Covid-19. European reactions to Donald Trump’s propositions had been very cautious at the time -to say the least. Six countries allegedly blocked an EU statement condemning the US plan and the annexation of Palestinian territories it puts forward. The Hungarian government went even further and publicly supported its implementation. All in all, the episode once more showcased the absence of unity within the Council. The EU’s High Representative Josep Borell had no other choice than to publish a statement in his name, reasserting the entrenched EU common position on the Middle Eastern Peace Process. When the Israeli government started to put this plan in motion aiming at annexing up to 30% of the West Bank, European capitals were much more vocal, but again fell short of acting concomitantly. The main endeavors to deter Benjamin Netanyahu from following through on his most controversial campaign promise thus came from the same ‘like-minded’ countries as always: a notable visit by German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas to Israel in May, phone calls by President Macron to the Prime Minister and letters sent by Spanish and Italian heads of government, among other initiatives. More than a thousand European parliamentarians from across the political spectrum even sent a letter to the 27 Foreign Ministers, urging them to take “the necessary steps” to prevent annexation. Among these steps, the Foreign Ministers were asked to draft potential retaliation measures, a would-be first in the EU – Israel relationship since 1967. European leaders have echoed their parliamentarians, stating any unilateral move by Israel would not go “unanswered”. While these initiatives are welcome in the current situation, and should be pursued, they are not only another illustration of Europe’s passive attitude, but they also come years too late.

Conceptual Map proposed by the US
Conceptual Map proposed by the US

Over the past months, European officials have been repeating that any unliteral annexation of territories would contradict International Law and Israeli commitments taken during the Oslo process in the 1990s, endangering the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state in the pre-1967 borders, with Jerusalem as a shared capital. This is precisely what the successive Israeli governments have been doing in the open for the past decades, right under Europe’s nose.Israeli authorities have not waited for Donald Trump to be elected in the White House to start annexing Palestinian territories, in blatant violation of the most basic principles of International Law. From the official annexation of East-Jerusalem and the Golan Heights in the early 1980s to the extension of civilian jurisdiction over institutions located in the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank or the construction of transport infrastructures only for Israeli settlers’ use, ‘facts on the ground’ have been established for -at least- the past 50 years.

As summarized in a 2018 piece from +972 Magazine, “Israel’s annexation is a process — a deliberate process — which has been carefully planned, began a long time ago, and which will continue for years to come.” While fully aware of these evolutions and the dramatic leverage it has as Israel’s first economic partner, the European Union has not undertaken any serious effort (outside of void statements and a failed attempt at disengaging its companies from Israeli settlements) to deter such actions. It has kept on expanding its economic, scientific, energetic and diplomatic relations with Tel Aviv, while funding and supporting an unelected, authoritarian and economically unviable proto government in Ramallah, designed to safeguard Israel’s control over the West Bank.

Now might be the right time for the EU to acknowledge this and start becoming proactive, or at the very least to question the narratives in which it sets its foreign policy vis-a-vis the region. For years, even the mention of a ‘one-state solution’ was impossible in Brussels despite efforts of Palestinian members of civil society to demonstrate a one-state reality was already de facto in place. Daring to say the word ‘apartheid’ inevitably lead to being referred to as anti-Semitic. The recent moves by Donald Trump and Benjamin Netanyahu have highlighted this already-existing debate, specifically in the Palestinian and Israeli civil society circles. The public display of their annexationist intentions has unlocked the rhetoric of a discussion which was kept hostage by an official narrative, disconnected from the reality on the ground.

Annexation of all or parts of the West Bank is inevitable. Not only because the legal process started decades ago and more than 400 000 Israelis already live in the West Bank, but also since the existence of a contiguous, independent, economically viable and militarized Palestinian state -in other words a sovereign state, has always been deemed a vital threat to Israel’s existence. European capitals need to listen to the voices on the ground and change their framework of understanding, if they indeed wish to transition from ‘being a payer to being a player’ and uphold the basic principles they so often proclaim. If the current window of opportunity seems to be closing this time, one would be naïve in assuming Israeli advocates of annexation have renounced their long-term plans. For decades, Europe has been failing to protect Palestinians’ fundamental rights and hold the Israeli and Palestinian governments accountable for their numerous violations of International Law. As outlined by the UAE-Israel-US deal and the high probability of others in the region following suit, Europe cannot rely exclusively on regional actors to uphold their common positions. Once again, International Law will not prevent further annexation of the West Bank on its own, and it seems highly unlikely that all or even some of the 27 EU Member States suddenly decide to adopt a diplomatic stance vis-à-vis Israel comparable to the one displayed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea. However, starting to look at the actual reality outside of preconceived and distorted narratives and frameworks is an achievable step. It requires admitting that the effective protection of fundamental rights – which lie at the core of the EU’s very own creation, comes before pursuing the impossible realization of these frameworks. It also is a sine qua non step on the path to a more proactive and credible foreign policy.

Antoine Michon is the co-founder and president of Sine Qua Non.


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