Felipe Taylor Murta

International Relations and Global Governance Analyst

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: The Thorn in the Side of the European Common Policy

In the first half of 2021, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict started a new escalation that lasted 11 days before the ceasefire but resulting in a large number of civilian casualties mainly in Gaza and the West Bank.

The post-Oslo era seems to have hardened the coordination of political actors in the promotion of the international agenda, which was aggravated by the decisions made by former American President Donald Trump, and the inability of the European Union to jointly promote the main values that constitute the European Neighborhood Policy.

The ceasefire came not long after the international appeal by the UN Secretary General, the current US president Joe Biden and 26 of 27 European Union member states, with the knowingly exception of Hungary. Even though Hungary was the only country to fully support Israel, one of its most important partners, other EU members have blocked political action of the block for many years as a result of geopolitical interests.

This analysis seeks to understand the position of the European Union stances, considering its official statements and the difficulties behind the negotiation amongst its Member States. In order to set a critical analysis for the matter, the first part of this article will focus on historical facts that constitute not only the relations between the EU and Israel and Palestine, but also the constitution of its Neighborhood Policy since the Barcelona process, which is important for this specific conflict. Secondly, it will explore the response of the block to the most recent escalation, which shall result in the final and global analysis.

The European interest in the Middle East is not new, whether considering economic, political, and military variables. Because of the geographical proximity, security and stability became recurrent words in the European discourse towards the region. Since 1995, during the Barcelona process that gave birth to the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership (EMP, 1995-2004), 15 European countries expanded their relations with 13 neighbor countries in the Mediterranean, as for Algeria, Cyprus, Lebanon, Malta, Morocco, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, Israel, and Palestine. The cooperation amongst member-States called for good governance, the rule of law, human rights and partnerships in economy, finance, politics, and culture.

Under the EMP, Association Agreements were made, including the continuation of ‘preferential’ arrangements with Israel, that were first introduced in 1975, and resulted in growing trade relations with the country, as well as the increasing participation in the peace process. Concomitantly, in 1997, an Interim Association Agreement on Trade and Cooperation was signed with the Palestinian. Aiming to increase the effort to consolidate peace between Israel and Palestine, the EU has acted in building security, especially in the Palestinian Territory (PT), initiating with the Joint EU-Palestinian Security Committee, that sought to improve the security sector in the PT, and creating an institutional infrastructure that would take responsible a Prime Minister and Interior Minister for the counter-terrorism efforts.

During that period, tensions were not resolved. Between 2000 and 2002, the second intifada led to an increase of attacks carried out by Palestinian forces against Israel, resulting in military responses that brought all PNA infrastructure to the ground. The many attempts to build a sustainable peace in the Middle East has its roots in both differences between EU Member States’ geopolitical interests and in the comprehension of which path should be taken in order to establish stability. Let us start with the latter.

The European Union Foreign Policy, considering both the ENP and UfM (former EMP) understand that in order to achieve peace, democracy and good governance are essential.

Discussing this first point needs to address the definition of both subjects. Good Governance, according to UN Officials, shall show eight main characteristics: it is participatory, representative and accountable, consensus-oriented, transparent, responsive to societal needs, effective and efficient, equitable and inclusive, and follows the rule of law; which would ensure that minorities be heard in the decision-making process. Nevertheless, the idea of interaction between society and the state is not the same, including how they understand democracy.

Democracy has many ways to be defined, and according to the concept, its link to good governance can become weaker or grow stronger, while full democracy can also only exist with good governance. The problem resides in the structure called ‘democratic piety’, borrowing the term from Adrian Little, where democracy is considered to be a cure for violent conflict, a belief rooted in the democratic peace theory. Furthermore, only considering the electoral practice, and minimizing or even ignoring other political realities as a consideration in the resolution of a conflict is erroneous.

In the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, focusing only in creating a mirrored institutional frame that reflects western – thus European – values, their ideas of good governance and democracy, is quite complicated. First, it assumes that the same model would be accepted in different cultures and perspectives and reflects rather the own European interest in maintaining stability in its neighborhood, rather than establishing sustainable peace in different terms. Thus,

Analyzing only the recent escalation between Israel and Palestine shows that the response from the European Union differs considerably from its latter statements, which would often be more neutral. The last statements communicated by Peter Stano and Elisa Castillo Nieto, respectively Lead Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Press Officer for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy at the European Union, condemn Hamas’s rockets as a clear attack to Israeli people, whilst recognizing the legitimacy of Israel’s response in protecting civilians. National actors from the block assume similar political positions. For instance, Australian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has decided to fly the Israeli flag in public buildings as a form of public support in the conflict. In Germany, the left and right wings in political class have shared their support for Israel, reinforced by former Chancellor Angela Markel statement, where Hamas’s actions are considered as “terrorist attacks’ ‘.

Those are not the only two European countries to establish a pro-Israeli political behavior. Israeli prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu has recently thanked France, British, German, and Austrian presidents for their support, and, evidently, the United States. The foreign policy shift could be explained by recent proximity between Israeli Head of State and illiberal European Leaders, such as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini.

The European Union remains the biggest financial actor of the U.N Relief and Works for Palestine and they maintain their official position calling for a peace process and end of occupation, with a two-state solution since 1967 (except for Hungary and Czech Republic). However, the Israeli-Palestinian situation has been put aside considering the importance that other Middle East situations have acquired. During the 2000s, most of European Leaders and negotiations as a block considered that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian situation would solve Middle East problems. However, Arab Spring and Iran nuclear movements have shifted priorities, and some European diplomats privately acknowledge the Abraham accords. In addition to it, Israeli economic importance in R&D in security and innovation put the country in a position as one of the main contributors in terms of security for the European Union. Recently, Athens and Jerusalem announced a $1,65 billion defense contract. The countries’ tech performance brought the country close to Europeans too: Israel was the first non-European country to be associated with the EU scientific body, CERN. Shall we not forget that France, since 2011, has purchased 500-million-dollar worth of Heron drones from the country, braking with the 44-year embargo proclaimed by Charles de Gaulle, followed by Emanuel Macron’s economy and digital affairs minister in the Israeli innovation Festival back in 2017, just after the election. Germany followed the path, engaging in a 9-year contract for Israeli drones, in a 1.2 billion contract, that would be further used to European Security. In 2020, Airbus and two Israeli air and space companies were called up together to launch drones over the Mediterranean Sea to monitor migrant smuggler ships.

Thus, the position of the European Union is rather complicated. It is important to take other steps in order to aid the peace process in the region, different from the Oslo agreement.