It's the right time for the EU to step in and bring peace to the Middle EastComments
Let’s face it: for all efforts and money spent, the European Union has been a junior partner in the now nearly non-existent Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Two circumstances might force the EU to go beyond playing solely a supportive role: first, the ultranationalist makeup — and the policy that goes with it — of the new Netanyahu government.
Secondly, there is the limited capacity of the United States to offset a descent into chaos of Israeli-Palestinian relations — a prospect that New York Times columnist and Middle East veteran Thomas Friedman has dubbed “the One Big Mess Solution.”
Not that the US does not care, as witnessed by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken's recent visit to Jerusalem.
Yet, these days, the Biden administration has too much on its hands — from the war in Ukraine to the challenges coming from Beijing — to invest its political capital in a seemingly intractable issue.
Gone are the times of US-led Middle East peace initiatives.
Can the EU pick up the slack?
Abraham Accords, the progress that needs to be capitalised on
The honest answer is that it cannot, yet it has the additional responsibility of filling the security vacuum.
To do so, the EU should also look to the wider regional picture beyond the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. The former must not be jeopardised by the latter.
Momentous progress made by Israel and the Arab states, namely through the Abraham Accords, needs to be consolidated.
The Accords have normalised diplomatic relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco. In the Gulf, these have led to renewed trade, tourism, and security relations with Israel and sparked talk of $1 trillion (€942 billion) in economic ties over the coming decade.
If other Arab states join in, the ensuing economic prosperity could spread to the region and might as well have a very positive impact on the lives and prospects of the youth.
Which is what is missing now in the West Bank and in Gaza.
While the Abraham Accords have enhanced Israel’s overall security also vis-a-vis Iran, they help in defusing the Palestinian time bomb and have since encouraged reviving the so-called two-state solution.
Today, the EU cannot have an Israel-Palestine policy without including it in its Gulf policy. That is, after all, where the Abraham Accords originated.
Abu Dhabi and Dubai have become familiar destinations for Israeli politicians and businessmen.
The UAE has been a trailblazer, but other Arab States are following suit, slowly, maybe, but steadily.
Violence needs to be addressed first
For Brussels to be effective, however, it would need a comprehensive strategy that would be able to address and deal with the ongoing violence, for one.
Tensions flared up almost a year ago when Israel Defence Forces (IDF) launched Operation Breakwater. On the ground, this turned into a reciprocal escalation between the IDF and Palestinian armed groups.
The new Israeli government has poured oil on the fire. Last month, the Palestinian Authority moved to end the security cooperation with Israel.
The Netanyahu government has also raised the stakes with Iran, especially after the Islamic Republic claimed that Israel was behind a drone strike against a military industry factory in Isfahan in early February.
But it is on the Palestinian policy that Israel finds itself isolated, and the response to its actions on the ground did not arise from anti-Israel bias.
The US has been vocal in its concerns and has asked for a “pause” in violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
In January, China and the UAE called for a UN Security Council meeting after the incident at Al-Aqsa Mosque.
IDF’s raid on a Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin was also widely condemned, as well as the subsequent terrorist attack against a synagogue near Jerusalem.
Brussels should use diplomacy to its advantage
When it comes to our continent, there are limitations to what the EU can do.
It does not have strong leverage on Israel; on the Palestinian side, the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank has a good relationship with Brussels but is weak, and Hamas in Gaza is on the EU terrorist list.
But it has a “clean” unbroken track record, both in regional outreach and on the Palestinian issue, to start with.
In 2021, it reiterated that strong Mediterranean partnerships remained a “strategic imperative.”
Additionally, it urged the renewal of continental efforts to reach the two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.
And it also has indirect diplomacy at its disposal.
Firstly, some of the EU’s regional partners can leverage their own diplomatic clout to facilitate dialogue.
Egypt, for instance, has direct contact with all players, including Hamas.
Through careful yet deliberate engagement, such partners could reinforce the EU’s credibility with the Palestinian side.
On the other hand, by engaging with Gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the EU can take advantage of their increasingly positive relationship with Israel, which gives them economic and, above all, security clout in Jerusalem.
In this regard, the EU should strengthen and formalize channels of communication. The EU-GCC strategic partnership, heightened in 2022, must be activated without delay.
One of its key objectives is precisely what is needed right now: strengthening dialogue and coordination on regional and global security issues.
And, of course, communication needs communicators. Thus, the urgent need for a special representative for the Gulf would signal to the EU’s regional partners that the wider Middle East region is among the top European foreign policy priorities.
Symbolics aside, the EU’s special envoy for the Gulf could add significant momentum to the regional dialogue.
Strike while the iron is hot
Only Israelis and Palestinians can bring peace between themselves. But they can do it with some help.
The Biden administration has indicated its continuing willingness to lend it but will not be proactive.
In the Middle East, as elsewhere, Washington needs to rely more on European support.
It is a very long shot for the EU to play the peacemaker role on the Palestinian issue after the US failed time and again, but that was then, and this is now.
Never have regional circumstances been so favourable to Israel’s external security and stability.
The time has come for the EU to give it a try by partnering not only with the US but also with regional players.
Ambassador Stefano Stefanini is a former diplomatic advisor to the president of Italy. He has also served as Italy's permanent representative to NATO and Deputy Chief of Mission at the Italian Embassy in Washington.
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