The latest round of the Palestine-Israeli direct negotiations launched in this September failed. The talks collapsed because of the issue of Israeli settlement constructions in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Israel refused to stop the constructions, which was the Palestinian condition to continue the negotiations.
The US offered an incentive package for Israel in exchange for an extended settlement moratorium. The US-Israeli deal failed and with it the whole attempt at direct negotiations. While the US at least tried to keep the negotiations alive, even though on the bilateral, US-Israeli basis, the rest of the Middle East Quartet including the European Union, the United Nations, and the Russian Federation stood quietly aside (1).
The EU pays too much for too little political weight in the process. The EU is the biggest donor to the Palestinians and has very good economical relations with Israel. But the lasting impasse of the peace process indicates that the use of the EU financial policies, without incorporating them into a complex system of various incentives, comes short of boosting the political stability in the region and encouraging the peace progress.
The real strength of the Union is its soft power. Soft power combines not only the economic attraction of the EU integration but also its diplomatic potential and preventive instruments to avoid military conflicts and to mitigate existing disputes. The EU no longer represents only a free trade zone.
Until now the EU has managed to engage in the most prominent diplomatic creations such as Middle East Quartet, developed preventive instruments like Europol and deployed assistance missions to boost security and the rule of law (for example the EUBAM, the EU border assistance mission). All those means together create sufficient potential for the EU to act more decisively on the world-wide stage. The EU could play the role of a ‘supervisor’, ‘mediator’ and ‘interpreter’ in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not just a generous but powerless sponsor.
As a ‘supervisor’, the EU could offer cooperation of its EUBAM forces with the UN forces between the Israeli and Palestinian territory. Due to its mixed representation, the joint international guard would evoke more confidence on the Palestinian and Israeli side. The boosted international forces would dispose of more power than the sole Israeli or EU guard and thus be able to act more successfully when avoiding any cross-border Palestinian violence, the main Israeli reason to continue the Gaza blockade. With the internationally secured borders the Israeli concerns would be satisfied and that would create space to lift the Gaza blockade. The Gazans would be able to interact with the outside world, whereby the interaction with other international actors represents one of the most important aspects for the state’s successful development.
As a ‘mediator’, the EU should engage in the direct Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. It should communicate with the parties and monitor their statements, demands and stipulations. With the first-hand information the EU can form its own proposals to both parties and not only to wait to see what the US has offered. The EU can intensify communication between Israel and the Palestinians and thus encourage exchange of statements and ideas. The EU’s swift approach would prompt the parties to actively respond to the proposals and thus increase their potential to reach compromise.
This leads to the third role the EU should perform – the role of an ‘interpreter’. The EU is made up of 27 different states with diverse cultures speaking different languages. It provides a perfect background for the presentation of an unbiased view which could mitigate conflicts arising from the failed communication. Israelis, Palestinians, as well as all cultural entities, create their own discourse in which particular things have particular meaning and keep specific emotional load. The misunderstanding often arises when the same thing is called different names. This evokes different feelings and creates different attitudes towards the one and only thing. During negotiation the prejudice created by the conflicting discourse can downplay any discussion before it really starts. For example, one may call ‘the barrier’ between the West Bank and Israel ‘a separation fence’, the other may call it ‘a racial segregation wall’. The emotional load is clear. One may call the person ‘a freedom fighter, the other ‘a terrorist’.
In such a situation, we are no longer dealing with the object at hand but with the imagination and feelings it evokes. The EU should mitigate the conflicting language and help find a common ground to avoid emotions that are bound to undermine the outcome of the negotiation. The EU should also support positive public image of the Israelis and the Palestinians and vice versa because, ultimately, it is the public opinion which shapes the political decisions.
Those ‘soft’ instruments may seem marginal in contrast to the military power. But it is the ‘soft power’ which masters and controls the military actions. At the end, it is the brain which decides about the action of the gun.
1) UN and EU have issued condemning statements calling for the end of the settlement constructions, but it is not considered as a sign of direct engagement in the negotiation.