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Why Europe is now top dog in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process

19 December 2018

9:14 AM

19 December 2018

9:14 AM

About this time every month, diplomats, UN delegates, and humanitarian officials sit around the circular table in the UN Security Council chamber to take stock of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The meetings are a constant fixture on the Security Council’s agenda, yet the lack of any tangible diplomatic progress in the Middle East’s oldest dispute means that the sessions usually adjourn in much the same way.  The UN special envoy warns the chamber about the violence hovering just around the corner; the United States blames the Palestinian Authority for obstructing the process; and the rest of the Security Council reiterates stale talking points about a two-state solution.

Yesterday’s meeting carried on much the same. And yet one could come away with a significant conclusion: the Mideast peace file is no longer Washington’s to manage. Indeed, with the Trump administration plunging US-Palestinian relations to the lowest they’ve been since the Oslo Accords, there is now an opening for Europe to replace the US as the top dog.

If Israeli-Palestinian peace is still a US foreign policy objective, the Trump White House has a strange way of showing it. While Washington has always been more closely aligned with Israel in terms of values, culture, and history, previous American presidents at least understood that America needed to act like a fair mediator to both if it wanted to be credible. As the far weaker party, the Palestinians needed to be assured that America could use its alliance with Israel to soften its position in pursuit of a tough but good-enough diplomatic settlement.

Despite being castigated as Israel’s lawyers, the post-Oslo era has bared witness to several US presidents putting the screws on Israel to meet the PA halfway. In the closing months of his presidency, Bill Clinton hammered both Prime Minister Ehud Barak and the late Yasser Arafat to finalise a land-for-peace deal (Clinton’s efforts failed, in part because of Arafat’s stubbornness).  George W. Bush was the first American president to officially make the establishment of a Palestinian state US policy, something the Israelis weren’t thrilled about as they were battling an intifada.  And Barack Obama pulled his hair out dealing with Bibi Netanyahu before throwing up his hands and abstaining (rather than vetoing) a Security Council Resolution criticising Israel for settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

Donald Trump has dispensed with the America-as-the-mediator routine. He talked a good game during his first year as president, inviting Mahmoud Abbas to the White House in a gesture of friendship. But that all went out the window in December 2017, when Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital to the consternation of the Palestinians. Abbas was livid: ‘It is because of this US decision…that we will not accept the US as the mediator in the peace process nor are we going to accept any plan from the US side.’ In Abbas’s mind, ‘[t]he US chose to be biased.’

The Europeans, previously supporting characters in this Mideast drama, look at Trump and see someone who seems to purposely enjoy making the Palestinian leadership angry. Hundreds of millions of dollars allocated for Palestinian humanitarian assistance have been cut by the administration, including much-needed financial aid to UNRWA, the UN agency responsible for Palestinian refugees. The Palestine Liberation Organisation offices in Washington have been shuttered, and Trump’s peace team has taken the Palestinian refugee question off the table. Trump son-in-law and peace envoy Jared Kushner hasn’t spoken to the chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat in over a year.

The Trump White House has forced European leaders to get more involved than they otherwise would. The same day the administration cut off funds to UNRWA, the European Union released a statement restating its full support for the agency, which it said provided ‘essential services’ on behalf of peace. Weeks later, the EU announced an additional €40 million to help fill the shortfall due to US funding cuts.  While US Ambassador Nikki Haley was blaming the PA for their people’s misery, UK Ambassador Karen Pierce was reminding the Security Council that Israeli settlement construction was not exactly beneficial to the peace process either.  The US under Trump believes it can squeeze the Palestinians into accepting a deal they wouldn’t be caught dead signing; the Europeans, in turn, are persuaded that Washington is squeezing too hard.

After the Security Council’s meeting concluded, eight European countries released a joint statement that was as much about distinguishing itself from the Americans as it was about keeping the idea of peace talks alive. ‘We, as the European Union members of the Council, would like to reiterate once more and emphasise the EU’s strong continued commitment to the internationally agreed parameters for a just and lasting peace in the Middle East based on international law, relevant UN resolutions and previous agreements.’ The statement continued: ‘Any peace plan that fails to recognise these internationally agreed parameters would risk being condemned to failure.’

If Europe wishes for this vision to become a reality, it needs to take up the mantle of Mideast peace mediator before the listless process is dead and buried. Donald Trump has left the continent with no other alternative.

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