European leaders are not unfamiliar with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's gate-crashing. For example, he invited himself to an anti-terrorism march in Paris in the wake of the gruesome Charlie Hebdo attack in 2015. Francois Hollande, the then French president, politely asked him to not come, but due to his insistence, Hollande was forced to invite the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to strike a balance.
Netanyahu again invited himself to an internal summit of European foreign ministers held in December last year. This time, Europeans were prepared and did not let him get away with his PR stunt. While the event was the first EU meeting in 22 years that an Israeli leader participated in, it was especially important because Netanyahu expected Europe to follow suit after US President Donald Trump unilaterally recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
However, European Union rebuffed him outright. “He can keep his expectations for others, because from the European Union Member States' side, this move will not come,” Federica Mogherini, the EU foreign policy czar, told Netanyahu, making it clear that there was full EU unity on the matter.
While she said that the EU did not want to see a “discredited” US administration when it comes to the Middle East peace process, she also advised the US to not have any “illusion” that its initiative alone would suffice. She said that the EU was not trying to bypass the US and start peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but emphasised on an international and regional framework to accompany the beginning of the negotiation.
Interestingly, Mogherini used “Inshallah” to express hope of negotiations between the two parties. Was it a bit unusual for the EU's top diplomat to use the Islamic or Arabic expression for “God willing”? Maybe not. It could also be a subtle but calculated move to transmit a message that the EU values Palestinian and Arab voices, unlike the current US administration.
So far, the EU said that there was no attempt to restart peace talks without “an engagement” from the US, but the statement does not necessarily rule out the possibility of a peace talk, in which the US wouldn't lead.
Therefore, when Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, less than two weeks after Netanyahu had addressed the EU Foreign Affairs Council meeting, called on the EU to take the lead in the peace process, one should expect a change. Three days before Abbas, Javier Solana, the former EU High Representative for foreign and security policy, made a similar call in an op-ed, urging the EU to recognise Palestine.
The notion that the US should be replaced by the EU as the chief Middle East peace negotiator has been gaining traction since Trump's move to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital. “The United States has proven to be a dishonest mediator in the peace process,” Mahmoud Abbas said during a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron. Abbas also said that he would no longer accept any peace plan put forward by the US. Needless to say, Israel would not embrace such a tectonic shift. Nonetheless, as the US decided to side with Israel without having bothered to maintain a supposed impartiality, the Palestinians are right to count on the Europeans.
The question is, would Trump's Jerusalem decision really result in such a game changer? Let us remind ourselves what was touted as a game changer before. In 2013, EU prohibited grants, prizes and funding to the Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Back then, a prominent Israeli commentator, Dan Margalit, described the function of the move as “a dangerous stepping stone for further boycotts.” For senior Israeli ministers, the new guideline was tantamount to an “earthquake.”
In 2015, after much deliberation, the EU lived up to the expectation by labelling settlement products. The rule meant that the Israeli firms selling their goods in the European market would have to distinguish between products made in Israel and those produced in Israeli settlements. Although European Commission insisted that it was merely “a technical issue, not a political stance,” the move was seen as the EU reaffirming its view that Israel's occupation was illegal. Haaretz's diplomatic correspondent Barak Ravid, who broke the story, wrote at that time that there would be sanctions in “economics, research and development, law, air travel and visa exemptions,” targeting the settlements.
The-then restrictions targeting the settlement products applied to little more than one percent of the USD 14 billion in goods and services that Israel exports to the EU, the largest export destination for the country. Yet, the move ignited strongly-worded statements—including comparisons to Nazi-era boycotting of Jewish businesses—from the political lexicon in Israel. The frantic response across the Israeli political spectrum stems from a fear that the world was finally taking actual steps against its illegal occupation—a sense intensified by the growing influence of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement.
Notably, the EU's move was accompanied by the then-US administration's support. Now that a president like Trump, whom Netanyahu praised as the most pro-Israeli American president in history, is in power with a Republican-majority in Congress eager to tackle the boycott phenomenon, Israel can breathe a sigh of relief for the time being. After all, Trump is naïve enough to hold a grudge against hundreds of countries—including America's closest allies like Britain and France—for voting against his Jerusalem decision in the UN. He even found a way to criticise them as “enemies of America” during his maiden State of the Union.
Now, let us imagine a scenario, where Barack Obama's Vice President Joe Biden or Secretary of State John Kerry, who reportedly indicated that he would again run for the presidency in 2020, or Bernie Sanders, is president of the US. During the Obama presidency, the US signalled its annoyance with Israel's insistence on sustaining the status quo. If a Democrat is elected to office in 2020, there's high likelihood that the next US administration would be reminiscent of—if not more radical than—the Obama administration, in terms of the Palestinian-Israeli issue. In that case, one should expect the EU to bolster its effort to punish the Israeli settlement enterprise, even eclipsing the American role in the process because of the intense pro-Israeli political climate in the US; such a future administration would only afford to provide the EU with quiet support.
In the days leading up to 2020, however, the US and EU will be on a collision course over this conflict, essentially putting the issue in limbo.
Nazmul Ahasan is a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.