Explosive situation in the Middle East: time to take a role for the European Union

Last week we heard about the disillusionment of U.S. Vice President Joe Biden during his visit to the Middle East. Shortly after arriving, the latter heard that 1,600 new homes in a suburb of East Jerusalem, occupied by Israeli settlers. The Palestinian response was fast to come : Mahmoud Abbas refused to open negotiations, even indirectly, with the Israeli authorities. For his part, Benjamin Netanyahu played the card of innocence and said he was not aware that the announcement was for that day. Its Repentance is hypocritical because the Israeli prime minister announced at the same time that he did not plan to stop Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem.

This week it was the turn of Lady Ashton, the High Representative of the European Union to be visiting the region. She had to face a climate of extreme tension (Lady Ashton découvre Gaza sous tensionLe Figaro, 19/3/2010). The repeated Israeli provocations succeeded in inflaming the Palestinian population. Tuesday was declared « Day of Wrath » by Hamas, and several clashes took place between Palestinians and Israeli forces. The imminent possibility of a « third intifada » is also increasingly mentioned (Vers une troisième intifada palestinienne ?Nouvel Obs (avec Reuter), 19/3/2010).

The situation becomes more and more turbulent. The great powers seem helpless. The members of the Quartet met in Moscow yesterday and seemed to have won concessions from the Israeli government, which would be able to make the Palestinians accept the principle of talks (US stares down Israel to revive Palestinian talksGuardian, 19/3/2010). But without being alarmist, the situation seems no longer favorable to negotiated solutions. How can we imagine the one hand the Palestinian Authority – which has from “authority” only the name – negotiate credibly? How can we imagine on the other hand a stop of the settlements with a government like the one of Benjamin Netanyahu?

Yet the EU holds a playing card that could change the balance, and would resume negotiations later, once the cards would be redistributed. This is the idea advanced by Professor Ezzedine Choukri Fishere of the American University in Cairo (AUC). He said the Israeli authorities have already received incentives from Europe to move towards peace, but this did not seem sufficient. The European Union must work together to make the settlements too costly for Israel (How Europe could alter the Arab-Israeli ‘political calculus’,Europe’s World, Spring 2010). For this, it has two instruments at its disposal: first an economic one, tax exemptions to forbid products from the settlements, but labeled as “Israeli products”, to enter the European market ; secondly, the Defense of Human Rights with clear sanctions against the Israeli violences against Palestinians.

Economically, the European Court of Justice issued a ruling a few weeks ago that prohibits settlement products to enjoy the benefits reserved for Israeli products on the European market (EU court: West Bank goods not IsraeliYnet news, 25/2/2010). This first measure must still be accompanied by an obligation for Israel to distinguish products from West Bank settlements. On the other hand, EU is funding many Palestinian infrastructures, but should take sanctions when they are destroyed by the Israeli army, as it was the case during the winter 2008-2009 in Gaza.

In terms of Human Rights, the European Parliament recently adopted a resolution reiterating the main recommendations of the Goldstone report by 355 votes pro , 287 against and 43 abstentions (see Resolution). Even if this resolution is a compromise between several political and remains therefore cautious, it is nonetheless a clear advice designed to Catherine Ashton and the Members of the Union for a tougher stance of the EU towards Israel.

Things seem to slowly move in the external action of the European Union, but will they change fast enough to stop the crisis now affecting the Middle East? Can the new institutional configuration of the Union gain fast enough clarity and efficiency? We must hope it in any case, otherwise the conflict will once again erupt into violence, facing a European Union once more left aside.

Nathalie Janne d’Othée


On this issue, see also Interview of Nathalie Janne d’Othée in the program « Allô Bruxelles » on Radio France International (Wednesday, March 17, 2010) (In French):