The two-state solution is man-made, if preserved by Europe


On 19 March 2014, Dutch Member of Parliament Han ten Broeke published an article on ECFR’s blog titled “Peace Is Man-Made”. In the piece, Mr Ten Broeke went to great lengths to debunk what he called “the Netanyahu myth”.

Mr Ten Broeke, a foreign affairs spokesperson for the Netherlands’ ruling VVD party, ridiculed “so-called Middle-East experts” who had claimed for years that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is “a hawk that would never agree to talks with the Palestinians” and “an unreliable politician who does not believe in a two-state solution”. He concluded that these “experts” were wrong, since Netanyahu had “joined the negotiations without preconditions and committed to the release of 104 Palestinian prisoners”, in the context of US Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace initiative.

Negotiating in bad faith

Now, the US-driven negotiations have ended, with no results. Ironically, the real reason behind Netanyahu’s insistence to negotiate “without preconditions” and his choice to release prisoners played a decisive role in causing the talks’ collapse. Netanyahu chose to release prisoners instead of freezing settlements, so he could expand the settlements without any limits. And that is exactly what he and his settler-obsessed government did: during the nine months set for Kerry’s initiative, almost 13,000 new houses in settlements were announced.

Contrary to what Mr Ten Broeke claims, the test for Netanyahu is not whether he agrees to negotiate, but how he behaves during negotiations. His actions on the ground speak for themselves. Along with this, unnamed US officials revealed after the collapse of talks that despite intense US efforts, Netanyahu only moved “an inch”.

In fact, Netanyahu joined the negotiations for tactical reasons. He wanted to neutralise international pressure, while creating more illegal facts on the ground that block peace itself. What kind of two-state solution does Netanyahu believe in, if he is acting to ensure that no viable Palestinian state can ever emerge?

Regrettably, Netanyahu’s tactics have worked. For over a year, the European Union has been silent. The Israeli government announced almost 13,000 new houses during the talks – and Europe said not one critical word about it.

The chances that Kerry’s initiative will be re-launched are low. The Americans have hit an Israeli wall and they are clearly not prepared to tear it down. US congressional elections are approaching, and after that, preparations will begin for the presidential elections of 2016. If Hillary Clinton runs for president, she cannot afford to have her predecessor fighting with Israeli hawks who have close ties to her Republican opponents.

Moreover, a recent ground-breaking development further diminishes any chances that talks will be resumed. Fatah and Hamas, divided since 2007, have reconciled. A unity government of technocrats was formed on 2 June. This government accepts the principles set down by the Middle East Quartet (the UN, the US, the EU and Russia): recognition of the state of Israel, a commitment to abide by earlier agreements and the renunciation of violence. Therefore, the US and the EU have announced that they will co-operate with it. The Israeli government, however, has terminated almost all its contacts with the Palestinian government and announced that it will not negotiate with it, even though the responsibility for negotiations in fact lies not with the government, but with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Israel’s response is bizarre. The Palestinians are expected to negotiate with virtually every Israeli government – even if that government intentionally destroys the prospect of a viable Palestinian state and includes ministers and parties that openly reject the establishment of a Palestinian state, as does Netanyahu’s own Likud party. As Peter Beinart recently wrote in Haaretz:

“Like Hamas, Likud has a history of opposing the two-state solution. In its 1999 platform, the party ‘flatly rejects the establishment of a Palestinian Arab state west of the Jordan river.’ The website of World Likud, which represents the party internationally, features a 2006 platform that promises: ‘Talks on the establishment of a Palestinian State will cease effective immediately. Israel will declare its right to exist within its current borders, with no further surrender of territory.’”

These positions were never rescinded, and so they must be considered as representing Likud’s current position.

What should Europe do?

Where does this leave Europe? The EU must not wait for the US to launch another initiative. Aside from the reasons outlined above that a new US initiative is unlikely at this time, the US is Israel’s strategic ally, not an honest broker. Europe needs to internalise one fact, and it needs to do it soon: if anyone is to preserve the two-state solution, it will have to be Europe.

Mr Ten Broeke used quite explicit language to describe Europe’s position with regard to Israel and the Palestinians. In his article, he wrote: “Europe, unfortunately, is not much more than a meaningless flunky to the Palestinians, and an extreme nuisance to the Israelis.” The inclusion of “unfortunately” does not serve to hide his deep cynicism about Europe’s role and potential. 

Mr Ten Broeke is one of those who branded Kerry’s initiative “the only show in town”. That was true, at one point. But in the present situation and for the foreseeable future, Europe is in fact the game-changer.

I do not mean to suggest here another diplomatic initiative along the lines of Kerry’s. Instead, Europe must change the costs and benefits for Israel. At present, Netanyahu is clinging to the status quo. This status quo is not static but dynamic, acting to move us further away from the two-state solution.

The status quo is Netanyahu’s preferred option. This needs to change. Moving towards a viable two-state solution, based on the June 1967 Green Line with Palestine’s capital established in East Jerusalem, must be made far more attractive for Israel than maintaining the status quo.

Right now, the Israeli governments is entrenching the occupation. It will continue to do so until the occupation becomes costly. Europe has the means to make the occupation costly for Israel. One small step in that direction would be ensuring the correct labelling of settlement products. This would merely mean applying existing consumer protection rules to these products, which are grown or manufactured on land stolen from Palestinians.

More relevant still would be a comprehensive EU-wide boycott of settlement products. By allowing the import of these products, Europe contributes to the economic viability of the settlement enterprise. A 2012 report by a group of NGOs, “Trading Away Peace”, revealed that Europe imports 15 times more from settlements than it does from Palestinians. This needs to change.

Moreover, all EU member states need to actively discourage their citizens and companies from investing in and trading with settlements. And violent settlers should be blacklisted and prevented from entering the EU.

However, if the EU wants to contain the settlements effectively and affect Israel’s calculations, it will have to adopt a more offensive policy. It must then suspend the EU-Israel Association Agreement, either in full or in part. Israel could still export to the EU, but it would not obtain the significant trade privileges that it currently enjoys.

In playing this card, Europe would also empower moderate forces in Israeli politics and society, who have tried to warn Israel’s government and people that the country is moving towards international isolation. Currently, their warnings lack credibility, because Europe continues to handle Netanyahu’s anti-two-state government with kid gloves.

It may take time for this measure to be taken. But it may well have to be taken one day. Sooner rather than later, Europe is likely to have to choose between remaining passive and seeing the two-state solution fail for good, or else using its considerable political and economic leverage to preserve the solution – which is also in Israel’s true interest.

Suspending the Association Agreement may be seen as an option of last resort. But something the EU could and should do tomorrow is to break its self-imposed silence. It is high time that Europe once again unequivocally condemns Israel’s ongoing violations of international law, in particular settlement construction, including the announcement on 5 June to build 3,300 new settlement houses.

Through robust EU Council Conclusions no later than July, the EU should reiterate and reinforce its clear positions rooted in international law – a normative framework entirely neglected by Mr Ten Broeke. When it does so, the EU should also announce that the annexation of any part of the West Bank would trigger sanctions similar to those deployed after Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Crucially, the EU must proactively support Palestine’s accession to international organisations and treaties, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). This month, the Israeli occupation entered its 48th year. The lawlessness and impunity that accompany the occupation must be ended. Rooting Palestine firmly within the international system and the international legal order would increase the chances that the occupation will not go on for half a century.

In his article of 19 March, Mr Ten Broeke writes that peace is man-made. I agree. It’s about time that he debunks his own myth that peace will be made by Netanyahu, while the EU remains silent and passive.

Andreas van Agt is a former prime minister of the Netherlands and chairman of The Rights Forum, a network of former Dutch government ministers and professors of international law who promote a just Middle East policy by the Netherlands and the EU.

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