Europe’s Middle East policy should step out from America’s shadow

Europe's World

Peace, Security & Defence

Picture of Clare Short
Clare Short

The deal to restrict Iran’s nuclear capacity may be a turning point in the Middle East, yet it is far from certain that its opportunities will be grasped. The years of negotiations preceding the mid-July agreement were conducted by the P-5 permanent members of the UN Security Council plus Germany and the European Union, but throughout it was clear that the United States has been in the lead. The U.S. leads on policy towards the Middle East and the EU picks up the bill for the ever-worsening suffering of the Palestinian people. It’s time the EU stepped forward and became a serious player in the Middle East.

Europe claims that its Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) is guided by a commitment to human rights and international law, but in practice it condones breaches of international law by Israel. And by allowing Israel access to the EU’s single market, while paying most of the costs of relieving the suffering of Palestinians in the occupied territories, Europe has made affordable almost 50 years of Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. In international law, an occupier is responsible for the humanitarian situation in any territory it occupies, but the EU’s payments have relieved Israel of this responsibility.

The EU-Israel association agreement of 2000 includes regular political dialogue, the liberalisation of services, free movement of capital, and the strengthening of economic and social cooperation. It states that respect for human rights and democratic principles guides the internal and international policy of both Israel and the EU, and at Israel’s request, there is also a joint declaration on the importance both parties attach to the struggle against xenophobia, anti-Semitism and racism.

The International Court of Justice ruled in 2004 that the constant expansion of the settlements in the occupied territories and the route of the Israeli wall were breaches of international law. As Israel organises more settlements and takeovers of property in East Jerusalem, the roads to link them to Israel, accompanied by the network of check points and the siege of Gaza, mean that the prospects of a two state solution have withered.

In 2006, we saw the second Israeli invasion of Lebanon and in 2008-9 and then last year disproportionate attacks on Gaza. Reports by several international commissions registering breaches of international law have not led to any action. Nor have the incidents of racism against Palestinians and African asylum-seekers graphically described by Pulitzer prize-winning author Max Blumenthal in his book “Goliath”. What we have instead seen throughout this period has been an increasingly close relationship between the EU and Israel. In 2007, Israel and the European Union signed their fourth scientific and technical cooperation agreement, giving Israeli researchers, universities and companies access to the EU’s seventh R&D framework programme. In 2009, an EU-Israel agreement on agriculture provided for reciprocal liberalisation measures on agricultural products, processed agricultural products and fish and fishery products.

That was followed in May 2010 by the EU-Israel agreement on conformity assessment and acceptance of industrial products with an annex on good manufacturing practices for pharmaceutical products which will allow for Israeli-certified pharmaceuticals to be sold on EU markets and vice-versa, without additional certification. Under the European Neighbourhood Policy, Israeli NGOs are eligible for EU thematic budget lines and twinning projects are implemented through the EU Israel action plan agreed in 2006. Since 2008, twinning projects have been launched in the areas of data protection, urban transport, equal employment opportunities, veterinary inspection and telecommunications with more in the pipeline.

Pleas for a shift in EU policy have come from many quarters, including a number of MEPs, and from 300 European trade unions, NGOs and civil society organisations following the 2014 attack on Gaza. In July 2012, an organisation called European Jews for a Just Peace wrote to the EU’s then foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton in the following terms: “We have now learned that the EEAS, under the direction of the Council of Ministers, has devised a plan to formally implement a number of further cooperative activities… we would like to point out that all enhancements of benefits to Israel, or cooperation between Israel and the EU, will serve to reinforce Israel’s belief that it can continue to occupy and settle Palestinian land with impunity.”

The same organisation went on to say that Israeli governments’ basic objective since 1967 has been to take over large parts of East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Its letter said “There is no credible alternative explanation for the pattern of Israeli actions.” The current government of Israel continues to pursue that objective, and more overtly and with much less concern for international opinion than its predecessors. Its refusal to commit to any negotiations on the basis of the June 1967 borders, and its continual settlement expansion both within and beyond the major settlements near the Green Line, make that perfectly plain.

European Jews for a Just Peace has pointed out that the issue for the EU is whether it actually wants to influence Israel to change course. If so, “then it has to apply conditionality to Israel by withholding any further benefits or cooperation until Israel formally commits to negotiate in good faith on the basis of the internationally legitimate solution of the conflict.”

The EU-Israel action plan drawn up in 2005 and extended to the end of 2013 reiterated the call for an increasingly close relationship, a significant measure of economic integration and a deepening of political cooperation. It also celebrated the fact that the EU and Israel “share the common values of democracy, respect for human rights and the rule of law and basic freedoms.”  It states that “an important goal of the Action Plan is to encourage cooperation on non-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the fight against terrorism, as well as prevention and resolution of conflicts in the region and beyond.” I myself find it astonishing that any Commission official could draft this text without embarrassment, and that the EU’s member states should uphold it. Analysts at Jane’s Weekly and at the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London say that Israel currently possesses between 100 and 300 nuclear warheads, making it the world’s sixth-largest nuclear power alongside Britain. Israel of course never signed the nuclear non-proliferation agreement.

The power of the pro-Israeli lobby, described by American academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt back in 2006, means the U.S. is incapable bringing about peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Surely the EU should step forward and uphold the values of the EU-Israel association agreement and insist that Israel complies with international law? Although the days are long gone when an Israeli-Palestinian settlement alone would transform the Middle East, it would certainly help.

The other hypocrisy is the close U.S. relationship with Saudi Arabia, itself the root of the primitive, distorted and hate-filled version of Islam now capturing the anger of the Muslim world and feeding sectarianism. America’s reduced dependence on Saudi oil means it is time to recalibrate that relationship. If we improve relations with Iran, we could then look for a peaceful transition in Syria, difficult as that will be, and we must also stop demonising Hezbollah and Hamas, whose power stems from their democratic mandates. Doing so would help reduce sectarian conflicts and strengthen the alliance against ISIS. With no other available policy that could yield instant progress, it is time European governments turned to this. 

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