Europe’s time to save the two state solution

Commentary

Faced with the prospect of diminished US interest in a two state solution, the EU needs to send a strong signal that it remains committed to this vision.

Donald Trump’s election ushers in considerable uncertainty for the future trajectory of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the fate of the two state solution. While his precise positions remain contradictory, statements from senior advisors suggest greater acceptance of Israeli “facts on the ground” created by illegal settlement activity. Rhetoric emerging from the Trump camp also points to greatly diminished interest in continuing the traditional US role of leading international peacemaking efforts. Whether by negligence or design, there is a real risk that Trump’s administration will erode long-held international norms that underpin hopes for an eventual two state solution.

For the EU, the creation of a fully sovereign Palestinian state based on the 1967 Green Line will remain a cornerstone of its foreign policy. Europe has deep relations with both Palestine and Israel, and it has expended too much diplomatic and financial capital in the pursuit of the two state solution to walk away. This means that US policy is likely to increasingly diverge from that of the EU, or potentially even confront it head on should a Trump White House give effect to Congressional legislation attacking European measures on Israeli settlements. 

Faced with the prospect of diminished US interest in – or even outright opposition to – a two state solution, the EU needs to send a strong signal that it remains committed to this vision. But it must do so in a way that actually increases the chances of peace, rather than prolonging Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territory.

Recognition

Given the continued impasse in the peace process, bilateral recognition of Palestine is one option open to the EU and its member states. While Sweden’s decision to do so in October 2014 remains unique, seven other member states have seen their national parliaments vote to advance Palestinian recognition as a means of unlocking meaningful negotiations. Should France formally recognise Palestine – as it has pledged to do if its peace efforts fail – a number of other European states can be expected to join the recognition bandwagon.

This could send a strong message to an increasingly annexationist Israel and a beleaguered Palestinian leadership. A vote in favour of Palestinian national aspirations would be an endorsement of President Abbas’ commitment to diplomacy at a time in which he is increasingly squeezed on the domestic front, with over half of Palestinians believing that his Palestinian Authority has become a burden in their drive for statehood.

However, while acknowledgement of Palestinian statehood can help keep the idea of a two state solution alive, it will not alone translate into on-the-ground Palestinian sovereignty. In isolation, such a move could even benefit Israel since its settlement expansion and de-facto annexation of West Bank territory depends to a large extent on the international community’s continued perception that the occupation is ‘temporary’ and that the two state solution remains viable but just out of reach. By providing symbolic – but not actual – support for Palestinian statehood, recognition could reinforce this status quo and provide cover for Israel to continue its settlement project.

Ultimately it is only the Israeli public that can put sufficient pressure on their government to end the occupation. And recognition by itself will do little to change the cost/benefit calculations that underpin the Israeli public’s support – or indifference – towards the status quo, which has resulted in significant benefits for Israeli citizens and almost zero costs to their international relations.

In the absence of a US brake or effective European disincentives, Israeli settlement activity can be expected to proceed full throttle. The settlement movement and its supporters within the Israeli Knesset – which are seeking to upend the status quo promoted by successive Israeli governments in favour of de jure annexation of West Bank territory – will be tempted by Trump’s victory to push for the extension of Israeli sovereignty to the settlement blocks. The one state reality this would create would pose significant policy challenges to the internationally community and effectively kill off the two state solution. In this context, Europe needs something more than recognition to demonstrate its resolve.

Differentiation

If the EU and its member states remain committed to the two state solution and Palestinian rights, then now is the moment for them to fully leverage their close relations with Israel in support of these principals. This means coupling recognition of a Palestinian state with the full and effective non-recognition of Israeli settlements. At a minimum, this would ensure that their bilateral relations with Israel do not facilitate Israel’s illegal actions in the OPTs or undermine Palestinian rights.

As ECFR’s recent publication on EU differentiation and the push for peace in Israel-Palestine explains, differentiating between the state of Israel and its settlements would allow the EU to prevent settlement-linked entities from benefitting from EU-Israel ties. This correct implementation of EU legislation can help save the two state solution by disincentivising Israel’s illegal annexation of occupied Palestinian land demonstrating to Israelis that their actions in the occupied territories do incur a cost.

If expanded to the full spectrum of EU-Israel relations, such an approach can block attempts to conflate Israel and its settlements at home and abroad, and counter-balance any potential US drift away from established positions. A more robust defence of European policy position would also re-affirm Europe’s commitment to up-holding the 1967 Green Line and slow the disappearance of the two state solution. 

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.

Read more on: The Middle East and North Africa, Israel / Palestine

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