In light of the US monopolization of the thus-far failing talks between the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel, and the exclusion of other international powers from the negotiations, it is time to reconsider the methodology of the peace process and the makeup of those in charge of it. The Palestinians should apply pressure to push for reintroducing the European Union (EU) and other powers into the process.
Palestinians have become accustomed to criticizing the EU for its weak influence on the political track when compared with the dominant role of the United States. While Palestinians admit that the EU is more generous in terms of the financial assistance it provides the Palestinian Authority (PA), they continue to discredit it for playing only a secondary role when it comes to political influence. It is only natural that the EU would be dissatisfied with an equation in which they pay more, but get less influence.
A key European figure revealed to Al-Monitor that one reason behind the dwindling European role in the peace process is the Palestinians' lax stance, which does not insist on an active European presence in the process. The Palestinians have a number of cards that they could play to exert pressure in favor of activating the roles of the EU and other international parties, such as Russia, China and India. There also are other areas worth examining concerning the EU’s position toward the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
The EU and the Palestinian cause
Some believe that the EU role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict began with the 1993 Oslo Accords. In fact, the position of the EU toward the Palestinian cause dates back to 1971, when the Europeans suggested a delineation of borders between Israel and neighboring Arab states. This was followed by the Vienna Declaration of 1980, when the EU acknowledged the right of the Palestinians to self-determination.
With time, the European stance developed significantly, with member states announcing their readiness in the Venice Declaration to acknowledge the statehood of Palestine by the end of the interim period set out in the Oslo Accords. The agreement stipulated a five-year transitional phase, from 1994 to 1999, at the end of which the Palestinians would announce the creation of a state, in May 1999. Simultaneously, the phase of final status would begin. The Palestinians, however, did not proclaim their state.
In 1993, with Oslo, the EU had reaffirmed its support for a peaceful process to enable the Palestinians to establish an independent state with strong institutions capable of fulfilling their duties toward the Palestinian people. The EU lent financial support to the PA in three areas:
- Direct support for the budget: to enable the PA to maintain the provision of essential services and to support marginalized groups; for salaries of state employees and state pensions; to enhance the performance of security agencies; to assist the PA with debt payments and, at later stages, with reconstruction funding for the Gaza Strip.
- Human and institutional development: to build public institutions and civil society, in addition to reinforcing the values of democracy, integrity, accountability, human rights and the rule of the law; to sustain Palestinians in Jerusalem, which was subject to continuous Judaizing.
- Refugees: to provide regular support to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which enables the latter to provide the refugees with services in the five areas in which UNRWA works.
According to official EU reports obtained by Al-Monitor, the EU contributes to development and relief internationally with grants of about $14 billion annually. Over the past five years, this contribution has totaled $66 billion, distributed among 100 third-world nations. Of this amount, 4% was allocated to the Palestinians, including in the areas covered by UNRWA. European support for the Palestinian people in 2008 totaled $800 million in 2008 and $500 million in 2011. The Europeans' support is considered the most organized and the least politicized, because it is not related to stances taken by the PA. For example, assistance was not halted when PA President Mahmoud Abbas sought to obtain non-member observer status for Palestine in the United Nations in September 2011 and November 2012, nor when Hamas assumed power in Gaza in June 2007.
In a remarkable and strategic development, the EU unexpectedly decided in June 2013 to boycott goods and services produced in Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian lands. In a July 19 statement, the EU announced that member states would halt cooperation, financial, technical and research assistance to Israeli institutions and bodies operating beyond the country’s 1967 borders in the occupied territories.
The EU decision was not limited to boycotting goods produced in the settlements. Although settlement products are important — given that Israel is a major trading partner for the EU and Mediterranean countries, and the EU is Israel's leading trade partner, with goods worth approximately $40 billion in 2011 — the decision also included Israeli institutions and universities, barring them from receiving EU funding, grants, prizes, and tenders. It also barred them from participating in joint research with EU organizations.
While at first glance the EU decision may seem strictly economic, it was also politics par excellence. The determination was made on the basis that Israeli settlements on Palestinian lands minimize the chances of reaching a two-state solution, making impractical the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with political sovereignty and economic capacity.
Nevertheless, the PA and Palestinian civil society organizations have failed to appreciate the EU stance. This might be in part because despite the boycott of settlement products, 25,000 Palestinians work in Israeli companies in the West Bank settlements. Moreover, wealthy Palestinian businessmen have dealings with their Israeli counterparts, who manage large enterprises and commercial networks in the settlements.
In an article that caused quite a stir, The Sunday Times (London) reported on Oct. 13 that a committee of auditors found that $2.7 billion in European assistance provided to the PA between 2008 and 2012 had been lost. The newspaper did not publish the full report, but in response to the article, the EU announced that a complete report would be forthcoming at the end of the year. The PA is yet to comment on the report, despite the seriousness of its content. It seems that the figure mentioned in the newspaper might have been exaggerated, considering that European financial assistance during the years cited does not exceed $3.5 billion.
Nevertheless, it seems that some Palestinians do not fully appreciate the EU’s political and developmental role, and thus do not approach European financial aid with sufficient diligence. The EU certainly assumes a great deal of responsibility in its modest political activities and monitoring of funds. Yet, the responsibility of the Palestinian side is much greater. It is in the Palestinians' interest that the EU play an active role in the peace process and show diligence in investing its financial support.
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