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Three ideas of what Europe could do

Daniel Kurtzer
Professor of Middle East policy studies

Europe has been involved in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process for over four decades. The EU is in the international Quarter along with the US, Russia and the UN, which has sought to implement the 2003 Roadmap for peace. Daniel Kurtzer, who served as US Ambassador to Israel and to Egypt, explains how he thinks that Europe could help in moving the peace process forward.


For more than four decades, Europe has asserted an interest in playing a substantive role in international efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The EU has issued important declarations to this effect, most notably the Venice Declaration in 1980, and has engaged in initiatives such as the Euro-Arab dialogue. Furthermore, individual European states have appointed special envoys and the EU has appointed its own envoy and participated in the international Quartet, joining the United States, Russia and the United Nations in the effort to implement the 2003 Roadmap for peace.

The EU has issued important declarations to this effect, most notably the Venice Declaration in 1980, and has engaged in initiatives such as the Euro-Arab dialogue.

European positions on peace process issues have sometimes diverged significantly from those of the United States. One example was the EU’s interest in including the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in the peace process at a time when the United States insisted that the PLO first recognise Israel, renounce terrorism and accept United Nations Security Council (UNSC) resolutions 242 and 338. Europe’s independent policy positions have sent an important signal to Middle East parties.

That said, the assertion of European interest in playing a more substantial role has not been of much consequence. Europe has rarely been able to present a common position, allowing the parties to advance their particular policy preferences by playing EU member states off against each other. This was evident in the proposal to require labelling of products from the Occupied Territories. Here, Israel applied significant pressure on its friends within the EU to prevent a common EU position from emerging.

Difficult relations between EU and Israel
A second issue has been the sometimes fraught relations between individual EU member states and Israel. Some Israelis argue that Europe is biased in favour of the Palestinians and thus cannot aspire to play the role of an honest broker. In truth, this Israeli argument mirrors the Palestinian argument against American mediation, namely, that US bias in favour of Israel should disqualify the United States from playing a third party role between the parties. But the fact remains that the Palestinians continue to accept the United States as the third party intermediary, while Israel does not accept Europe in that role.

A third issue has been the ‘deep pockets’ syndrome, that is, the belief on the part of Palestinians, Israelis and even some Americans that Europe should simply pay the bills. Not only do Europeans rightfully chafe at the prospect of continuing to provide assistance while being shut out of the negotiations, there is also the question of the uses to which some European assistance has been put. In relation to projects funded by European countries, tensions have developed between some donors and the Palestinian Authority over the latter’s decision to honour Palestinian terrorists. Three years ago, for example, the Dutch Parliament voted to end support to the Palestinian Authority for the same amount of money that the Palestinian Authority had granted to the families of convicted terrorists. A second frustration relates to the fact that significant projects funded by Europe (and others) have been destroyed in the recurring violence between Israel and Hamas.

The EU has the ability to form a unified policy, the will to unite behind that policy

Can the EU form a unified policy?
The core issue, then, is whether the European Union has not only a strong interest in playing a role in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but rather whether the EU has the ability to form a unified policy, the will to unite behind that policy, and the determination to see the policy through, even when it runs up against the inevitable resistance of one or both Middle East parties. These same questions can be posed to the current American administration as well as to its predecessors. I am on record as being quite critical of American diplomacy since the 1991 Madrid peace conference and thus approach the question of European policy with great caution and humility.

Three ideas of what Europe could do
What in fact could Europe do to prove its capability and will to help advance the prospects for peace? I suggest at least three actions. My first recommendation is that Europe should encourage and work with the United States to formulate strong parameters to serve as the terms of reference for future negotiations. These parameters would not substitute for the responsibility of the parties to conduct negotiations. However, without parameters and terms of reference, future negotiations will start and wander aimlessly.

My second is to accelerate Palestinian institution-building, a task for which the EU is particularly well-suited and experienced.

And my third is to explore ways to bring Israeli and Palestinian citizens together, for example in meetings on economic issues of mutual concern or in public-private business activities. At some point governments may in fact restart negotiations, and at that point popular support, bolstered by frequent contacts, will be important to sustain the peace process.

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