Europe not paying US price for firmer stances on Israel

Published Monday, December 10, 2012

The European Union will look at ways on Monday to press Israel to ditch the plan in the E1 area of the occupied West Bank, but hold off on tough action soon despite international outrage over the decision.

And while experts do not expect a radical change of policy by US President Barack Obama's administration, they have noticed a subtle shift in approach – one which could embolden Europe.

"A change you may be able to identify in the last few days is the Americans not investing diplomatic capital in calling everyone else off (over Israel)," said Daniel Levy, Middle East director at the European Council on Foreign Relations think-tank.

"It's very clear that no one is paying a price in their bilateral relations with America for taking a more assertive line," he added.

Europe openly condemns Israeli plans to build 3,000 settlements the occupied West Bank that would kill any chance for a two-state solution, but tough action from the European Union is not in sight for now.

Construction in E1 (East one) could divide the West Bank and make the creation of a contiguous Palestinian state – as envisaged by the internationally backed two-state solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict – almost impossible.

Settlement building on land Israel annexed in the 1967 Middle East war is considered illegal according to international law.

But some officials say that options for robust steps against Israel are limited due to a lack of unanimity in the 27-member EU and diplomatic protection of the Jewish state by its cast-iron superpower ally the United States.

The prospect of sanctions looks weak right now; France and the United Kingdom are saying that "persuasion" and "incentives and disincentives," respectively, are more likely to be the chosen methods of alleged efforts to discourage Israel from the E1 settlement plan.

Britain, France and several other European countries summoned Israeli envoys last week to protest over the plan to build settlements in an area of the West Bank known as E1, and even Israel's staunch European ally Germany voiced criticism.

The right-wing Netanyahu has shrugged off international criticism and stressed Israel's right to defend its "vital interests."

Europe's options

Israel's umbilical alliance with the United States and differing views within Europe have militated against concrete international action over expanding settlement in the West Bank.

"European governments individually and collectively express their frustration with policies adopted by the Israeli government .... but so far that frustration has not coalesced into a determination to take action like for example economic sanctions," said Menzies Campbell, a prominent member of the British parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee.

"The reasons for this are complex. A desire not to offend the Americans..., the fact that in some countries at least there is lingering guilt the Holocaust was allowed to take place and also the difficulty of getting a unanimous view on issues of this kind from the 27 members of the EU," he added.

Others see fewer obstacles to strong measures.

Left-wing European lawmaker Daniel Cohn-Bendit said unanimity was not required for some measures.

"They can decide on qualified majority. They don't need unanimity," he said, adding that without a credible threat, Europe would in effect be telling Israel, "Do what you want."

Chris Doyle, who heads Caabu, a think-tank on Arab-British relations, outlined a string of options open to EU countries.

As well as economic sanctions, EU states could cease cooperation on academic research, impose restrictions on goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements and even impose visa restrictions on members of far-right Israeli groups, he said.

European countries could also individually bolster bilateral relations with the Palestinians, a move likely to anger Israel.

"The Israelis will not budge unless they really believe there's intent. They've heard it all before. It's the Europeans jumping up and down. So what?" he said.

"If there is political will to take the necessary action, then a whole load of options become available."

US Pressure

Israel appears even less likely than before to heed European protests over settlements, given that several European powers either voted yes or abstained in the November 29 UN General Assembly vote on a Palestinian diplomatic upgrade.

The Palestinians won the vote, effectively securing UN backing for their bid for statehood, a move condemned by Israel and the United States as unilateral and hampering peace talks.

Israel's new settlements announcement came a day later as one of the many punitive measures against Palestine's defiance of Israel and UN win for Palestinian non-member statehood.

"At this point the EU lost whatever credibility it had with this Israeli government," said Oded Eran, a former Israeli ambassador to the EU and now senior researcher at Israel's Institute for National Security Studies.

"I doubt there is a package, positive or negative, that can now convince Netanyahu to listen to European advice."

Key to whether Europe toughens its rhetoric to get Israeli attention will be Washington, which has also criticised the E1 settlement plan, albeit less forcefully than Europe.

Britain said it would on Monday repeat a plea for Washington to "take a decisive lead and push the peace process forward urgently" – diplomatic speak for more pressure on Israel.

Israel appears increasingly isolated: After Arab Spring popular uprisings that have empowered Islamists, it has fewer security partners in Arab leaders than it once did in the region, while the United States appears keen on pivoting towards Asia, not expending more political capital on the Middle East.

Levy and other experts say public sympathy in Europe towards Israel is waning, a change that will become more difficult for elected officials to ignore over time.

Only a handful of countries voted with Israel in rejecting the Palestinians' diplomatic upgrade at the United Nations.

"No nation can live in isolation .... I hope for Israel's sake that she doesn't take friends for granted or underestimates the importance of having friends in all corners," said John Baron, another member of the British parliament's Foreign.

(Al-Akhbar, Reuters)

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