Bounds of the European Role in the Peace Process

Bounds of the European Role in the Peace Process

  • 9 April 2002

The European Union (EU) has shown some signs indicating its willingness to play a key role, proportionate with to the nature of the strong ties and common interests between it and regional countries, in the Middle East. The EU has recently demanded that Israel, at the individual and collective levels, immediately withdraw from the Palestinian regions it reoccupied. Moreover, the European Parliament called for suspending the partnership agreement with Israel as a means of pressure. Most of these stances lost their effectiveness and fairness when governments were required to bring about their implementation. This occurred when these measures were viewed in terms of relations with the US, on one hand, and the desire of certain European governments, especially the British and German ones, to reach "balanced" resolutions regarding the regional situation on the other.

The European stance towards the Palestinian issue is still, in general, different from that of the US. This point was further stressed through the demands of some European countries to send international observers to the occupied territories to monitor the situation there in a way that would curb the Israeli military machinery. Others also proposed new ideas to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In addition to successive statements from European officials demanding that Israel withdraw from the reoccupied Palestinian territories, the EU, represented through Spain (the current head), participated in drafting the statement issued at the April 10, 2002 quadrilateral meeting in Madrid.

UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the US Secretary of State, and the Foreign Ministers of Spain and Russia attended this meeting, where they called upon Israel to immediately withdraw from such Palestinian territories. On the same day, the European Parliament called upon EU governments to suspend the partnership agreement with Israel. This demand was based on a resolution, approved by a majority of 269 ayes to 208 nays (22 abstentions). European MPs asked the 15 EU Member States to call for a prompt meeting of the Partnership Council between Israel and the EU and suspend the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership Agreement between the two parties. The partnership agreement was signed in 1995, and it came into force in 2000. It stipulated that a political dialogue shall be held between Israel and the EU, and that a free-trade zone would be established, especially in relation to the agricultural sector. It also covered certain items concerning commercial relationships.  A partnership committee manages this agreement. Besides, the council is convened annually at the ministerial level, the last such meeting was held in November 2001.

The EU is considered Israel's premier commercial partner. In 2000, Israeli trade with the EU reached 27.7% of total exports ($8.5 billion), and 43.3% of imports ($15.5 billion). The European Parliament also called on the 15 member states to impose an embargo on weapons exports to Israel, and sent observers and peacekeeping forces to the region under UN supervision. The importance of these resolutions is limited, since they are nonbinding on EU governments; however, they doubtlessly express ongoing European  resentment at Israeli actions, especially the latest invasion of Palestinian cities in the West Bank. Some European countries have already started to pressure Israel. The Israeli Defense Ministry stated that Germany has already delayed shipment of key spare parts for Israeli Merkava tanks. EU officials mentioned that other member states have suspended exports to Israel of military equipment and spare parts that could be used in actions against civilians. The European Commission announced that it welcomes the German initiative on peace in the Middle East, demanded the withdrawal of the Israeli Army from the Palestinian occupied territories, and hailed the settlement of the conflict between the two contesting parties as a prelude to a final settlement in the Middle East dispute through establishing an independent Palestinian state. 

This prospect, in turn, assures that the European Commission and some other parties seek to play an integrated political role, not just confined to providing advice or pressure. Britain generally agrees with the USA in international affairs, and the two countries usually have coordinated stances in this regard. However, London announced that it has started to take actual steps to adopt the initiative proposed by Saudi Crown Prince Emir Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. This very initiative was also considered at the March 2002 Regular Arab Summit in Beirut as a basis for a Security Council resolution  to revive the Middle East peace process. For his part, British Prime Minister Tony Blair viewed this initiative as "the only actual basis for a solution that should include the Land-for-Peace formula". The European stance against oppressive Israeli practices towards Palestinians was reflected in pressures on European governments, the EU, and eventually the Hebrew state itself. Hence, Israelis rejected and denounced it. However, it did not result in a major change in Israeli actions or the US stance.