A bigger view on peace in the Middle East

#CriticalThinking

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Sven Koopmans
Sven Koopmans

European Union Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process

Photo of This article is part of our Diplomacy in the Middle East series.
This article is part of our Diplomacy in the Middle East series.

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Show more information on This article is part of our Diplomacy in the Middle East series.

The structure of power and diplomacy in inner- and inter-state relations in the Middle East is once again undergoing profound transformations. In the 20th century, the power architecture inherited from colonial rule condemned the region to instability, leaving behind questionable borders and dissatisfied ethnic minorities, and ultimately fuelling state and non-state actors to challenge existing territorial sovereignty.

More recently, the renegotiation of the role of civil society during the Arab Spring demonstrated the existence of seeds of change, which have been silently growing long before the first protests in Tahrir Square. Several political dialogues materialised in the early 2010s but failed to bring about stability in the region. Today, much uncertainty surrounds the future of Middle Eastern diplomacy and politics.

Our Diplomacy in the Middle East series focuses on the most prominent issues affecting the Middle East, with the aim of learning from the past, understanding current challenges and contemplating the role of hard and soft diplomacy throughout the region.

Drawing together the expertise and experiences of diplomats and foreign policy experts from across the Middle East, Europe and the United States, this series addresses topics such as Iran’s influence within and outside the region, the fate of Syria, peace processes in the Middle East and the stabilisation of Iraq.

Since my appointment in May 2021 by the European Union’s 27 foreign ministers as the EU Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process, I frequently face a wry comment or a direct question: what peace process? And why the EU?

Nearly a decade has passed since the last United States-led attempt to bring the Israeli and Palestinian sides together to hammer out a final settlement. Years of ‘conflict management’ of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, terror attacks, violence, expansion of illegal settlements, political divisions among Palestinians as well as Israelis, and many other factors, including the recent breakthrough by Israel in normalising relations with several Arab States, have indeed left both Israelis and Palestinians questioning the merit of returning to the negotiation table. In Europe, some assert that the ongoing conflict is not a direct threat to EU security or values, while others doubt the ability of the EU to influence the parties’ political calculations in any meaningful way.

“Real security for Israel and Palestine can only come through real peace and a true political and negotiated solution.”

The facts on the ground, however, tell a different story. A little more than a year after the latest major escalation in and around Gaza in May 2021 – which left 261 persons dead in Gaza, including 67 children, and 13 persons dead in Israel, including two children – another deadly outbreak of violence occurred between 5 August and 7 August. This time, 49 Palestinians were killed in Gaza, of whom at least 26 were civilians, including 17 children, and 70 Israelis were injured, including nine children. This past spring, a spate of terrorist attacks in Tel Aviv and other Israeli cities was the deadliest in years, and tensions resurfaced in and around Jerusalem’s Holy Sites. Last year saw a stark rise in settler-violence, which has continued in 2022, while illegal settlement expansion, demolitions and evictions of Palestinians continued apace in the occupied Palestinian territory, including in East Jerusalem. Currently, some 1,200 Palestinians risk forced transfer from their homes and the destruction of their communities in Masafer Yatta in the southern West Bank, to make place for an Israeli firing zone.

All these negative developments touch people locally, but also affect regional security, and thereby also European security, values and interests. This requires a peace process. As HRVP Josep Borrell observed after the May 2021 fighting: “Real security for Israel and Palestine can only come through real peace and a true political and negotiated solution.”

A ‘whole-of-EU approach’ – harnessing the diversity of resources and relations the EU maintains with the parties – is crucial

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has reminded Europeans and their governments of the need for strength, solidarity, awareness of shared values and clarity of common objectives. While there may be differences between EU member states regarding specific developments of the day, there is longstanding and solid unity on the essentials of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: a two-state solution, based on the internationally agreed parameters. My main task as Special Representative for the Middle East Peace Process is to actively contribute towards that end. A ‘whole-of-EU approach’ – harnessing the diversity of resources and relations the EU maintains with the parties – is crucial. The informal ‘Friends of the Peace Process’ group that I set up, for example, brings together the various arms of the EU institutions to enhance information sharing and strengthen coherence of action.

The EU is close to Israel and the Palestinians in many ways. The EU is by far Israel’s biggest trading partner. It has excellent ties in education, technology, creative industries, and much more. Israel is part of the Horizon Europe and Creative Europe programmes, the Commission’s two flagship research, innovation and culture initiatives. The EU and its member states are by far the biggest donors to the Palestinians with around 600mn per year. Among other things, the Union supports the Palestinian Authority in the payments of the salaries and pensions of civil servants, the social allowances to vulnerable families and referrals to the East Jerusalem Hospitals. The EU also supports Palestine refugees through the vital United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and infrastructure projects to improve access to energy and potable water in Gaza. The EU has a positive agenda with the parties to help and see progress rather than criticise.

The Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflict is a man-made problem. It can be solved by people too

The current trajectory does not lead to greater stability or respect for fundamental norms. ‘Managing’ the conflict means prolonging suffering and insecurity. In the absence of the prospect of a solution, the reality of millions of people living under occupation is globally increasingly seen as a structural human rights problem. The EU must therefore work with all sides to make a fresh effort for genuine peace, continue to offer support, and work to make that support as practical and forward-looking as possible.

The Israeli-Palestinian and Arab-Israeli conflict is a man-made problem. It can be solved by people too. Israelis and Palestinians are there to stay. This means that people of good will need to work together to envisage comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians. So, what peace process? A peace process to provide peace and security for Israelis, Palestinians and, in fact, the entire region. And why the EU? As the region’s immediate neighbour, the EU does not just have a special representative, but also a special responsibility to help its friends and neighbours.


The views expressed in this #CriticalThinking article reflect those of the author(s) and not of Friends of Europe.

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