x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

EU's firm action on Israel adds pressure for peace talks

The EU's new restrictions on dealings with Israeli settlements should prove to be a useful spur to John Kerry's peace-talk efforts.

Two events jolted the Israeli-Palestinian arena last week: the US secretary of state, John Kerry, announced that after a three-year hiatus, negotiators from the two sides will meet again to begin peace talks; and the European Union issued guidelines barring support to Israeli enterprises, institutions or individuals operating from the Palestinian territories.

Some see the two efforts at cross purposes. Israel denounced the European stance as "interference", while the US termed it "unhelpful". In fact, it is quite helpful and can provide a useful assist to the negotiations.

It took Mr Kerry six visits to the region to secure the agreement of the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to begin direct talks. Details of his strategy have not yet been made public but press reports indicate he utilised a combination of incentives and creative ambiguity to finesse an agreement. The centrepiece of his approach appears to involve a statement he will issue detailing his "terms of reference" for the talks.

Handling the "terms of reference" in this manner will give the Palestinians the opportunity to agree with the US's insistence the negotiations should be based on the 1967 borders with allowances for "land swaps", while the Israelis can claim that they are not bound by the terms. Additionally, the Israelis will latch onto the US acceptance of the view that the outcome of the negotiations should include Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, while allowing the Palestinians to insist that they have not so agreed. Despite the effort it has taken to get to this point, Mr Kerry notes that the hard work begins now. (This is an understatement, since the parties have, as yet, agreed to nothing other than that they will meet.)

Former secretary of state, James Baker, used creative ambiguity in 1991 to get Israelis and Arabs to attend the Madrid Peace Conference. Mr Baker pushed, prodded and, when needed, threatened. Because the Israelis would not agree to even sit with the PLO or any Palestinian delegation and because the Arabs insisted the Palestinians be present, Mr Baker cooked up a rather creative plan to include the Palestinians in the Jordanian delegation with no flags or signage, allowing the Palestinians and other Arabs to say the Palestinian delegation was present, while the Israelis would continue to refer to them as Jordanians.

It took two years and 11 rounds of failed negotiations before frustrated Israeli and Palestinian negotiators, on their own and in private, produced the Oslo Accords - itself an exercise in creative ambiguity. In the agreement, Israelis and Palestinians fudged or delayed action on most of the critical issues that divided them. They did agree to recognise each other but even that now appears to have been of limited value with Israelis upping the ante with the demand that they be recognised as a "Jewish state" while most members of Israel's current government continue to deny the right of Palestinians to a state of their own.

Much the same problems exist on the Palestinian side. While the accord envisioned a five-year plan of implementation, the document stated that during this period both sides would agree not to take any unilateral steps that would prejudice the outcome of the negotiations. For Palestinians, the phrase meant the Israelis would refrain from building any new settlements in the occupied lands as that would clearly prejudice the outcome. For the Israelis, it meant no such thing. The result was that in the first 10 years of the Oslo process, the number of Israelis living in settlements doubled to almost 400,000.

The problem with creative ambiguity is that while it may get you to "Go", it doesn't necessarily get you past "Go". Here is where the European Union's decision can be extraordinarily helpful. By reminding the Israelis their settlement enterprise is illegal and not recognised by the international community, the decision provides important balance to the peace effort.

Since the occupation of the territories in 1967, the Israelis have disregarded international law and conventions that specifically prohibit the acquisition of property and the settlement of people by the occupying power in lands seized in time of war. The Israelis have refused to acknowledge the applicability of these laws and conventions maintaining that it is their right to populate these lands. Over time, US objections to Israel's settlement policy have been frustrated and then muted by domestic pressures. As a result, the Israelis have ignored US appeals to end settlement construction.

It should be noted that despite the US's statement that the negotiations would be based on the 1967 borders with "land swaps" (implicitly allowing the Israelis to keep many of their settlements), Israel rejects even that formula. And it is difficult to imagine how the Palestinians have the confidence to proceed.

Members of the US Congress sent a letter to the EU criticising its position, arguing the move "will only serve as a disincentive for the Palestinian Authority to engage in serious final status negotiations". But the effect of the European action will be the opposite. The Palestinians may feel that while the Israelis have the US Congress in their corner, they have the EU on their side, helping to balance the scales - hence the importance of the European position.

In the days to come, we will learn more about the US "terms of reference", the incentive packages to advance the process, and the reactions of the deeply-fractured Israeli and Palestinian publics to the effort itself. We will also learn the degree to which the US, the Europeans and the Arabs will actively put their weight behind the effort.

Getting the parties to "Go" is just the start, since, as Mr Kerry has noted, the hard work has just begun.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute