EU backed into a corner on Israel-Palestine

Trump’s Jerusalem announcement and Netanyahu’s visit have placed unprecedented strain on Europe’s Israel-Palestine policy. 

Also available in

Over the past week Europe has once again been forced into reaction mode by President Trump, this time in response to his surprise decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. To make matters more difficult, the announcement was swiftly followed by Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu’s quasi self-invited trip to Brussels to meet with EU Foreign Ministers and High Representative for Foreign Affairs, Federica Mogherini.

These events occurred against the backdrop of Israel’s internationally unlawful practices in the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT), and mounting Palestinian disillusionment after almost twenty-five years of international failure to constrain Israel’s ongoing annexation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. All of the above seems to be hastening the demise of the two-state solution and ushering in “a one-state reality of unequal rights, perpetual occupation and conflict” – to use HR/VP Mogherini’s own words.

Yet, despite the odds, the EU for now seems to have emerged not only relatively unscathed, but perhaps even with a bit of new-found conviction and purpose in defending the two-state solution.

Disruptor in chief

Last Wednesday, Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, overturning seventy years of international consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That consensus had viewed the status of Jerusalem as something to be negotiated as part of a final status agreement, and had withheld recognition of any side’s sovereignty over the city until such time.

Trump’s move comes on the heels of an ambiguously worded statement by Russia in May 2017 seemingly recognising West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and itself elicited an announcement from the Czech Republic several hours later recognising West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This was accompanied by a call from the (largely ceremonial) Czech President, Miloš Zeman, to move his country’s embassy to Jerusalem, as well as similar statements from some African politicians.

The High Representative’s subsequent efforts to buttress long running international and EU positions on Jerusalem was though frustrated by Hungary’s decision to block a statement by the EU and its 28 member states expressing their serious concern over President Trump’s move.

An unwelcome visitor?

EU unity on the issue appeared set to be challenged further still by the visit of Prime Minister Netanyahu to Brussels. Although the visit had been scheduled prior to Trump’s announcement, its timing and manner – accepting an outstanding invitation by Lithuania without consultation with other member states – caused consternation in a number of EU capitals. It also posed a headache for HR/VP Mogherini who had not been informed of Netanyahu’s visit until it was leaked to Israeli news, reportedly as part of a deliberate Israeli snub.

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s visit came at a moment in which EU decision making on this file is deadlocked by internal member state divisions. Most tellingly, there been no EU Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions relating to the Middle East Peace Process since June 2016. And despite over a year of back-and-forth between the EU and member states, there is still no agreement on holding the first EU-Israel Association Council meeting since 2012, nor on setting partnership priorities in line with the 2015 review of the EU’s Neighbourhood Policy (ENP). Netanyahu’s visit also comes after he called EU policy “crazy” during a meeting with Hungarian, Slovakian, Polish and Czech leaders in July 2017.

Despite this backdrop, Mogherini seems to have managed to forge a rare unity among member states during Netanyahu’s 11 December breakfast meeting with foreign ministers. So far, the Israeli Prime Minister’s assertion that “all or most of the European countries will move their embassies to Jerusalem, recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital” seems unfounded.  As HR/VP Mogherini remarked afterwards, “Prime Minister Netanyahu mentioned a couple of times that he expects others to follow President  Trump's decision….He can keep his expectations for others because from the European Union Member States' side this move will not come.”

Divergent paths

The High Representative seems to have broken new ground yesterday, not only in countering Prime Minister Netanyahu’s spin that countries will inevitably acquiesce to Israeli facts on the ground, but also in defining the EU’s relationship with the Trump administration. When it comes to the Middle East Peace Process, Mogherini noted that, “There can be no illusion from the United States' side that the United States' initiative alone would be successful.” This indication of EU willingness to pursue a more independent policy points to a shift in its initial stance which had sought to give the incoming US administration room to re-launch the MEPP.

In acknowledging that the Trump administration will not be the saviour of the two-state solution, HR/VP Mogherini has also raised the prospect of increased EU involvement in helping promote the two-state solution. In this regard, she will no doubt be supported by a majority of like-minded EU member states, including France and Germany. The High Representative will also be able to draw on the ongoing in-house review of EU’s modalities of engagement on the ground.

Making it meaningful

But for an increased political role to be meaningful, the EU will have to avoid doubling down on a Middle Peace Process that, in its current configuration at least, has utterly failed to deliver an end to conflict. This is not to say that EU policy has not had it successes. The EU can take pride in its efforts to defend the normative and physical space for a two-state solution. But it should do more to promote a coherent application of its legally-necessitated differentiation measures between Israel and the settlements, and support international accountability mechanisms such as the UN Human Rights Council’s database of business activities related to the settlements.

At the same time, the EU should give serious thought on how it can best lock-in the contours for a final status agreement based on two states. Such measures could include formalising the 1967 Green Lines as the borders of Israel and Palestine, or simultaneously recognising West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and East Jerusalem as Palestine’s capital under occupation.

Finally, the EU could explore ways in which its donor aid can be better directed towards the promotion of on-the-ground Palestinian sovereignty building strategies. This could include greater political support for local governance structures in the occupied territories, and for Palestinian efforts to implement national policies in vulnerable areas such as Area C, Jerusalem’s E1, and Gaza.

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


Senior Policy Fellow

Subscribe to our weekly newsletter

We will store your email address and gather analytics on how you interact with our mailings. You can unsubscribe or opt-out at any time. Find out more in our privacy notice.