Three things Europe can do to support the Middle East Peace Process


Palestinian Fatah delegation chief Azzam al-Ahmed celebrates with Hamas prime minister in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniya in Gaza City on April 23 2014 after West Bank and Gaza Strip leaders agreed to form a unity government. © EPAS European Pressphoto Agency B.V. / Alamy

On 23 April, the two rival Palestinian parties, Hamas and Fatah, signed a reconciliation agreement that surprised many experts and policymakers. Stipulated in the agreement are the creation in five weeks of a technocratic government tasked with organising new parliamentary and presidential elections after six months and a commitment to reform the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) to include also Hamas, both listed as terrorist organizations by the United States. The new government would run the Palestinian Authority (PA), which provides public services and is responsible for security in the Gaza Strip and in limited areas of the West Bank, while negotiations with Israel and representation in international bodies would remain the task of the PLO.

Whether the agreement will be implemented or not is still a question. Two previous versions signed in Cairo (2011) and Doha (2012) were never implemented. Nevertheless, the announcement of the agreement yielded immediate effects on ongoing US-led negotiations between the PLO and Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu’s government promptly withdrew its participation in the talks, while US President Barack Obama expressed “disappointment” over the agreement and announced his government’s decision to take a “pause” from its mediating role.

The European Union, for its part, expressed support for the reconciliation agreement, while restating that any PA government must commit to non-violence, respect previous agreements, and maintain the PLO’s recognition of Israel. This is in line with longstanding EU positions: that a reconciliation agreement with Hamas is acceptable provided that it respects the above-mentioned conditions. The current PA president, Mahmoud Abbas, confirmed that he would be the head of the new technocratic government, which would respect all of the EU’s conditions. Moreover, it must be kept in mind that the new government would not conduct negotiations with Israel, which is the task of the PLO – an organization that the parties have committed to reform but which does not yet include Hamas.

The new reconciliation agreement is good news for those who want meaningful negotiations that result, in a reasonable time period, in the creation of two states. The negotiations that started last summer under the leading role of US Secretary of State John Kerry failed to achieve that. In fact, they turned out to be just talks about how to extend talks while not addressing core issues, such as borders or the fate of Palestinian refugees. Meanwhile, as highlighted by the 2014 ECFR Scorecard, failure to reach the two-state solution has made EU efforts at Palestinian institution building less and less effective.

The failure of US-led talks stems from two relevant shortcomings. First, the absence of terms of reference for the negotiations led to a lack of clarity between the parties: no parameters on border demarcation were set nor was there an agreed agenda for the talks. Second, domestic politics, both among Palestinians and in Israel, are not conducive at the moment for the two-state solution, as ECFR highlighted in its Two-State Stress Test.

On the Palestinian side, both Fatah and Hamas have suffered from lack of reconciliation, while the failure of US-led negotiations to deliver anything tangible to Palestinians has further aggravated the crisis of domestic support for President Abbas. Ultimately, a weak and delegitimised Palestinian leadership is very unlikely to sign a peace deal with Israel.

The EU Foreign Affairs Council that meets in Brussels on 12 May should discuss a strategy to support Palestinian reconciliation and kick-start meaningful negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. This can be summed in three points.

Support for reconciliation and national dialogue. Political support from the EU and its member states for reconciliation is positive, but it is not enough. There are currently two parallel government and security structures (the PA in Ramallah and the Hamas-controlled government in Gaza), which eventually will need to be merged. This will need political mediation and technical support, precisely where EU leverage and expertise could be beneficial. Strategic reconciliation is also needed. This could include a shared strategy supported by all Palestinian factions to achieve statehood. This can come only from a national dialogue. Here, the EU and its member states could use the expertise accumulated elsewhere while working to ease all of the logistical problems that will likely arise, particularly in light of Israel’s restrictions on freedom of movement.

Work on setting terms of reference for negotiations. Past EU Council or Foreign Affairs Council conclusions (see for instance those of December 2009 and those of May 2012) have clarified Europe’s understanding of the main terms of reference for some of the main dossiers of the Middle East Peace Process. One crucial example is the reference to the pre-1967 borders with mutually agreed and comparable land swaps. These parameters have guided EU policy on the conflict and could be offered to the parties as terms of reference. A more comprehensive statement should include not just borders and Jerusalem, as in the past, but also lay down agreed parameters on the issue of Palestinian refugees and security arrangements for Israel. Even more important, Europeans should try to gain some support from their Arab partners for these parameters.

Develop incentives and disincentives for both parties, but particularly Israel. While domestic Palestinian politics will change if the reconciliation agreement is implemented, Israeli domestic politics may change mostly in reaction to external shocks. As an ECFR delegation to Israel observed in March, the Israeli debate about negotiations was considerably influenced by the EU’s policy of differentiation between Israel proper (with which trade relations are very deep) and Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are illegal and should not in any way benefit either from EU funds or from privileged trade relations with the EU. This policy should therefore continue, as it sends a strong message to ordinary Israelis as well as to Israel’s business community that there are costs for prolonging the status quo. Simultaneously, the EU should make clear to Israelis what exactly they stand to lose if they step back from a final status agreement. In December 2013, for example, the EU offered a Special Privileged Partnership to both Israel and the future Palestinian state. For Israel, this would mean almost everything but membership of the EU, something that 48 percent of Israelis have said would be an important element when taking their decisions about a peace deal, according to a poll commissioned by ECFR in March.   

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