How Europe can help the Middle East peace process

Written by Steven Everts, 03 February 2003

The EU member-states are deeply divided over Iraq. But on the other great issue of the Middle East the Israel-Palestine conflict they have an increasingly common perspective. Most European governments do not believe that America can 'park' Israel-Palestine while it wages war against Iraq. They argue that, to counter accusations of double standards, political negotiations must begin as soon as possible. Many Arab critics point out that it is hypocritical of the West to make the case for war against Iraq on the basis of non-compliance with UN demands, while Israel is allowed to flout them.What should the EU do in concrete terms? First, on the diplomatic front, the EU should push the Quartet (EU, US, UN and Russia) to publish its roadmap for establishing a Palestinian state by 2005. Progress towards publishing, let alone implementing, the roadmap has been painfully slow. Periodically there are calls for Europe to develop a separate peace plan. However, the US is indispensable for brokering and implementing any peace deal. A European initiative that lacks American backing would be stillborn the Israelis could reject it without consequences.With the Israeli elections out of the way, the EU should pressure the US to implement the roadmap. Americans tend to say to Europeans: 'we all agree what a final settlement will look like'. This is true, but no longer good enough. There is a compelling need to move towards implementation. In their discussions with the Americans, the EU should not be afraid to link firm action against Iraq with the need for parallel progress on Israel-Palestine.Second, European governments, together with the US, should prepare plans for a NATO-led peacekeeping force to police a final settlement. It is difficult to foresee such an international force operating on the West Bank and Gaza in present circumstances. But across Europe and the US, defence planners are coming to the conclusion that an international force should take over the occupied territories after an Israeli withdrawal. They argue that only an external force can compensate for the lack of trust among the parties after years of violence.NATO seems likely to play a role in organising a post-Saddam peacekeeping force in Iraq. Why could it not do the same in Israel-Palestine? ConstantEuropean pleas for a more active and even-handed US stance are justified. But such arguments might carry greater weight if European governments showed they were prepared to support a settlement, not just with extra money, but also with troops for a NATO-led peacekeeping force.Third, the EU should learn to leverage its trade and aid policies in support of its political strategy. The EU needs America for a peace plan and the provision of a security force. But it does not need Washington to decide how to spend its money. When trying to increase its leverage in Israel, the EU should reflect on why so many moderate Israelis distrust it. Many Israelis to the left of Ariel Sharon claim that Europe is insensitive to their plight. They feel that only the US takes their security concerns seriously. Yet in cultural or political terms they often feel closer to Europe. If the EU wants to enhance its influence, it needs to improve its image with those in Israel who share its basic objectives. It could do so by upgrading its partnership with Israel through deeper political ties and systematic Israeli participation in EU policies, for instance on crime and migration. But such steps would depend on the Israelis first reaching a settlement with the Palestinians. In addition to providing incentives, the EU should also be ready to use some sticks. For example, it should keep a firm line on the question of exports from Israeli settlements. Such exports should not be labelled 'made in Israel', and should no longer enter the EU on preferential terms. The EU should use a similar mix of carrots and sticks with the Palestinians. In the past, EU aid came without significant strings attached. Continuous US and Israeli insistence on further Palestinian reforms has probably been excessive; reforms are hard to implement in the context of continuing occupation. But the Palestinian Authority (PA) needs to make the transition from a liberation movement to a government. Clearly, a corrupt and authoritarian PA is not what the Palestinians want or deserve. Nor is it a credible partner for the Israelis. So the EU should make its T250 million annual aid to the PA conditional on tangible progress towards democracy and good governance. Yasser Arafat continues to exercise an unhealthy degree of control over the PA. The EU should help to groom a new generation of Palestinian leaders, and insist that the Palestinian Legislative Council has the ultimate say over the distribution of European donations.On the incentive side, the EU should continue to spend money to alleviate the humanitarian crisis, and thus reduce the appeal of extremist groups. It should also step up support for various 'state-building' projects. There should be more targeted aid for the security forces and more money for civil administrators and legal experts preparing a new constitution. The EU must signal that it will help the Palestinians to build and run their own state provided all Palestinian groups forswear terrorist tactics.To be successful in the Middle East, the EU needs a mixture of grand strategy and precise initiatives. Both Israelis and Palestinians would doubtless object to some of the measures suggested in this article. But the EU should learn to assert its position more forcefully and risk being criticised for it. A more effective European Union strategy on Israel-Palestine is both necessary and feasible.