Jørgen Jensehaugen : « The EU could play a major role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict »

Interview with J. Jensehaugen, co-managing editor of the Journal of Peace Research and specialist on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at International Peace Research Institute, Oslo.

A lasting peace in the Middle East is a central aim of the European Union. Will the Europeans know how to seize their chance to become an international actor with greater impact ?

The Euros : In the last decade one could note an important evolution of the European Union towards becoming an international actor that wants to be taken seriously. Today, there is an increased European willingness and capability to implicate itself in international conflicts if its interests are affected. On its website, the European Commission states that a lasting peace in the Middle East is a central aim of the European Union. My first question would be : To what extent do you think the European Union has a role to play in the Israel-Palestinian conflict and which of its interests are affected ?

J. Jensehaugen : The EU could play a major role in the Israel-Palestinian conflict by applying diplomatic, economic and political pressure on Israel. Currently, however, the EU has mostly either stood on the sideline or sided with the US. This has particularly been a problem during the tenure of US President George W. Bush Jr., as the US stance has been more blatantly pro-Israel than ever. The implication of this is that no real pressure has been applied on the stronger part in the conflict. Israel holds most of the cards, has the military upper hand and is supported by the most powerful segments of the international community. For the sake of obtaining a peace treaty, the power balance must become more equal. The only way to do this is to put weight behind the demands on Israel. This is not the same as being anti-Israel, it merely means that Israel should be treated as any other country in the international community – occupation and breaches of human rights are illegal by international law. As for the interests of the EU in solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, this is a more complicated matter. Palestine in itself is not a place filled with resources, nor is it of major strategic importance. However, since the plight of the Palestinian people is one which garners great sympathy in the Muslim world, there are clear interests by implication. For instance, many Islamic terrorists point out that the EU/US support for Israel is their main source of “inspiration” for attacking western targets. Beyond that, in dealing with countries such as Syria, Iraq and Iran (to name but a few), much political goodwill could be gained if the EU was perceived as pushing for a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Relations between the EU and the Middle East

The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, linking 12 Mediterranean states with the EU, was launched in 1995 as a product of the Barcelona Process. By 2010, the creation of a Mediterranean Free-Trade area is planned. Besides the UN, the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership provides the only multilateral forum where the two Middle Eastern conflict parties cooperate. Relations under the framework of the Barcelona Process are supplemented by the European Neighbourhood Policy, which aims at promoting security and stability among its neighbours. The newly founded Union for the Mediterranean shall lead to more concrete cooperation. To support the Middle East peace process the EU takes part in the Mideast Quartet alongside the US, the UN and Russia. The EU favours a two-State solution and a fair solution to the Jerusalem question based on requirements specified in the so-called Road Map of 2002. In this context, the EU works closely together with Israeli authorities and the Palestinian Authority (on behalf of the PLO).

The Euros : Even if the European Union probably has a role to play in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, one can wonder how influential it actually is. For example the European Union is, together with the United States, Russia and the United Nations, a member of the Quartet on the Middle East. To what extent is the European Union capable of playing a major role next to such important actors ?

J. Jensehaugen : The question is not so much that of capability, but rather that of political will. The EU could remain part of the Quartet and yet diverge from its partners in the Quartet in how it pushes for political solutions. The EU has not been willing to make any such serious independent political investments in Palestine. This became clearer than ever when the EU followed the US lead in its boicott of the Hamas government. The EU could have taken on a softer line, but did not do so.

The Euros : Many people continue to see the European Union as a “soft power”. If one looks at the fact that the EU is Israel’s biggest trading partner as well as a major economic, scientific and research partner, could Europe’s “soft power” be a serious advantage ? Or do you think that it is a handicap in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process that the EU cannot seriously back up its diplomacy with military strength ?

J. Jensehaugen : Being a “soft power” is not necessarily a problem since military intervention has never been an option. The fact that the EU is Israel’s biggest trading partner does give major leverage to the EU. From a theoretical perspective the ”The European Union - Israel Association Agreement”, which is the agreement on which trade between the two entities is regulated, should be cancelled immediately as it unequivocally states that the agreement is based on respect for human rights. Since Israel is a gross violator of such rights, the EU could suspend the agreement until this demand is upheld. The fact that the EU has not used such leverage shows that although capable, the EU is not willing to use the pressure it could apply on Israel.

The Euros : The European Neighbourhood Policy, the Barcelona Process and the recently launched Union for the Mediterranean are all European instruments that are more or less directed towards the Middle East, and include the Occupied Palestinian Territories as well as Israel. To what extent can those instruments have positive effects on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict ?

J. Jensehaugen : As it stands, not too much. Including the Palestinian economy into cooperation with EU is a noble idea, however the situation on the ground dictates that this is an empty policy. Israel controls all of Palestine’s borders, collects the import-export tax on behalf of the Palestinian Authority, controls the airspace and the outlets to the sea. In other words, in practice joint EU-Israel-Palestinain trade/cooperation is strengthened EU-Israeli trade/cooperation.

The Euros : The European Union is the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority. When Hamas came into power the EU maintained the funding, not to lose its influence on the Palestinian authority, while asking Hamas to condemn violence as a political means. Nevertheless the Hamas government continues to support such violent attacks. Did the European strategy fail ?

J. Jensehaugen : In order to answer this question apropriatly one must look more deeply at the context in which the EU demand took place. First of all Hamas won the election by fair democratic means and as such should have been treated as part of the Palestinian Authority, and not as separate from it. The false dichotomy created by the EU helped sow the seads for the civil war in Palestine. Secondly, the EU demands were more deeply founded than a mere “cease violence”. Hamas was asked to denounce violence, to acknowledge all previous agreements Israel had made with the Palestinian Authority, and to accept Israel’s “right to exist”. None of these demands were put to Israel. The feeling in Hamas was therefore that these were unfair demands that proved the bias of the EU. The European strategy could have been more successful had it lightened the pressure as Hamas made conciliatory moves. This was not done, and Hamas felt that there was no point in making concessions. The net result is that the EU policy was a failure on a grand scale, pushing Hamas back into its role as a spoiler.

The Euros : In your opinion, what else should the European Union do to positively influence the Israeli-Palestinian peace process ?

J. Jensehaugen : The EU must take a clear stance. Does it want to solve the conflict or use the conflict as a way of keeping close political ties with the US ? Currently it seems that the second option is the one being followed. If the EU wants to solve the conflict it must be willing to apply pressure on Israel and diverge from the US in its treatment of Hamas. What the EU has to realize is that the conflict is one based on a power imbalance. By being a blind “bridge builder” the EU is de facto supporting Israel. In the long run this is not the way to solve the conflict, rather it is a recipe for making it more difficult to solve as Israel can continue to create facts on the ground.

Tzipi Livni and French Minister of Foreign Affairs Philippe Douste-Blazy

The Euros : Tzipi Livni has just become the new leader of the governing party Kadima and could become the next Israeli Prime minister. She is said to be more consensus orientated than others and some Palestinian leaders welcomed her election. Hamas, however, does not expect any changes in the Israeli policy. According to you, how far could the recent changes in the Israeli government be relevant for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and for Europe ?

J. Jensehaugen : It is hard to speculate exactly what this means for the future of Israeli politics. The obstacle created by Ehud Olmert’s political weakness might be gone, but Tzipi Livni is probably forced to choose the same political allies as Olmert if she is to form a government. One of the parties included in his government, Shas, has demanded that Jerusalem cannot be on the negotiating table. If Jerusalem is off the table, there can be no negotiations.

Illustration : flickr.com (rockcohen)

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Anne est étudiante en cinquième année du double-diplôme franco-allemand en Sciences politiques entre l’Institut d’Études Politiques Lille et la Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität Münster. Actuellement elle suit le Master „Politics and Government in the (...)

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International Peace Research Institute, Oslo
Official website

European Commission
The EU and the Middle East Peace Process

Representatives of the Quartet
Quartet Statement, 26 September 2008

United Nations Website
Roadmap to a Permanent Two-State Solution to the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
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