Netanyahu’s misleading response to the EU’s new policy on Israeli settlements

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Putting aside the symbolic implications of the EU's policy on settlements, the practical contribution that the EU stance will provide to the conflict is still far from clear. What can be assessed already, however, is that the criticisms against this step have been based on shaky arguments, writes Lorenzo Kamel.

Lorenzo Kamel is an historian from Italy's Bologna University. He is currently Visiting Fellow (2013/2014) at Harvard University’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to the European Commission’s decision that any agreement signed with Israel has to include a clause stating that the settlements are not part of it has been fast, harsh, and uncompromising.

"We will not accept any external edicts on our borders", Netanyahu clarified; Israel’s PM also added that the EU should focus on ending the civil war in Syria or halting Iran’s nuclear program, rather than pressuring Israel on the issue of settlements: "These problems are little more urgent" and "I will not let anyone harm the hundreds of thousands of Israelis living in Judea and Samaria, in the Golan Heights, or in Jerusalem – our united capital".

A few hours later also Finance Minister Yair Lapid, by many considered as a symbol of “Israel’s center”, defined European’s move as “a miserable directive, poorly timed […] The EU directive signals to the Palestinians that there is no international or economic price to be paid for their continuing refusal to return to talks”.

Netanyahu’s and Lapid’s stances set the attention on some relevant misunderstandings at the base of the current Israeli-Palestinian impasse.

Before focusing on them, it is important to clarify why the EU’s decision, despite all its limitations – it only applies to deals between Israel and the Union itself, not its 28 member countries, and its guidelines cover only projects financed directly out of the Union’s next long-term budget, indeed a relatively limited sum – is a vital contribution toward any feasible peace agreement as it underlines the necessity of a two-state solution as the only viable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has been increasingly undermined by Israel’s continuous settlement building activities.

To prevent the collapse of the two-state solution, EU member states made it clear that settlements and the exploitation of the natural resources (water, stone, gravel) in the Palestinian Territories are not topics of negotiation.

For a long time the same is true for the various long-standing pre-conditions required to the Palestinians: from the recognising of the State of Israel to the rejection of any abstract idea or effective implementation of armed struggle, i.e. the reasons why Hamas has been excluded by the political process.

The EU’s guidelines represent indeed a vital step in support of the two states solution and could become a new powerful leverage in the hands of US Foreign Minister John Kerry. “EU will take further measures against Israeli settlements if Kerry’s peace bid fails”, a US official clarified on Tuesday.

In truth, putting aside the symbolic implications of the issue, the practical contribution that the EU stance will provide to the conflict is still far from clear. What can be assessed already, however, is that the criticisms against this step have been based on shaky arguments.

First, whoever believes that the Israeli government is right in claiming that it “will not accept any external edicts on our borders” has to be consistent with this very same stance and accept that, at least in principle, the non-member State of Palestine has the right to build settlements unilaterally inside the international recognised lines within which Israel is placed, until the two sides will be ready to define their borders.

Second, it is misleading to couple the recent EU decision to the civil war in Syria. The EU has taken restrictive measures against the Syrian dictatorship for decades.

In contrast to Israel, the EU has never entered into contractual relations with Syria. Syria does not profit from any community programs, the EU has indeed imposed sanctions on the country and recently lifted the arms embargo on Syrian rebels. The parallel to Israel would be as if the EU ended all contractual relations with Israel, imposed sanctions on the whole country and would start to open the gate to deliver weapons to Hamas.

The current EU measure on the settlements, in contrast, only aims at preventing European tax payer money to flow into the Israeli settlements, while Israeli entities within the green line are by no means affected.

Third, it is problematic to couple settlements and the presence of a foreign army that since almost five decades affects the lives of a local majority with a fight between, just to remain on topic, a Syrian dictator and the Syrian people.

It is certainly true that Syrians are suffering an unprecedented humanitarian crisis and that both contexts require efforts and attention; but it should also be clear that, in principle, they are utterly different.

The attempt to downplay the situation in the Palestinian Territories though a comparative approach with other dramatic “occupations” is also problematic. In other somewhat similar contexts, such as, just to name a few, Abkhazia, the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TRNC) and East Turkestan, the “occupying powers” of these areas have created nominally independent states (TRNC-Turkey, Abkhazia-Russia and so on), and/or are not building settlements (Chechnya is just an example), and/or have incorporated the local inhabitants as their citizens: with all the guarantees, rights and problems that this entails.

In Tibet, despite China’s annexation of the area (Tibetans are citizens of a country) and the fact that according to the Dalai Lama the region is not seeking independence from China, a severe repression is taking place.

European powers, contrary to what could be said regarding to the Israeli-Palestinian context, bear no historical responsibilities for the current situation in Tibet. Nonetheless, Chinese embassies in London and elsewhere attract weekly protests and Beijing, ironically, continues to accuse Western countries of being unfairly singled out.

In conclusion, the EU’s approach is thus based on a long-term strategy that aims to counterbalance a short-term policy (funding of settlements) which is dangerous even the more so since the entire Middle East is in a process of deep change.

Commenting on Brussels decisions, Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the ECFR, pointed out that “the ship is turned, it’s pointed in a certain direction. It still moves very slowly, but it’s going to be difficult to turn it back”.

Without the backing of Washington, however, it will not reach its goal. The Obama Administration needs to be consistent now with its stated policy – the opinion that settlements are not part of Israel and that they are an obstacle to the two-state solution is backed by Washington since decades – as well as with the guidelines set up by the international community.

True, for a long time the US rewarded Israeli approach by declaring that the Israeli-Palestinian borders will reflect “changes on the ground”, meaning big settlement blocks.

And it is true as well that in South Africa and other contexts, Washington moved forward only after other actors had set the trend. Today, however, we are in front of a partially different America, well represented by John Kerry’s efforts.

More than this, today we are witnessing the emergence of a new multipolar era as well as a new Middle East, in which the solution of its “eternal conflict” is a key strategic objective for a big power that is increasingly turning its attention to Asia."

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