It is time for EU to revise its approach vis-à-vis the Middle East peace process

Unwilling to address the Israeli-Palestinian conflict head on, the EU has fallen back on excuses and supposed silver linings. To regain its normative power, the bloc should redefine its approach to the conflict and take action
Jerusalem, Israel | Photo: Alamy

By Emmanuel Cohen-Hadria

Emmanuel Cohen-Hadria is head of the Department for Euro-Mediterranean Policies at the European Institute of the Mediterranean in Barcelona

06 Mar 2023

The quest for a more geopolitical Europe begins close to home, and with the European Union’s capacity to contribute decisively to solving conflicts in its neighbourhood. This is clearly not happening with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

For years the EU has approached the stalled Middle East peace process by finding silver linings – “we have managed to remain united around our parameters” is a popular talking point – and making excuses, arguing that “there is not much we can do on our own, we are a marginal player and moving away from the status quo would be too costly”. The time has come to acknowledge that the EU can afford neither misplaced boasting nor resignation.

The Council of the European Union set out four parameters as the basis for relaunching peace negotiations in its 2014 conclusions on the Middle East peace process, including an agreement on the borders of the two states based on 4 June 1967 lines and the “fulfilment of the aspirations of both parties for Jerusalem”.

Incessantly repeating its commitment to these parameters without taking any action to enforce them, and without adapting to evolving circumstances on the ground that fundamentally challenge them – in particular, Israeli annexations – is ultimately futile.

As a result, the normative power wielded by the EU has progressively waned. The good news, though, is that it can still be regained. Changing the EU’s stance on the Middle East peace process requires at least three steps.

First, the bloc must learn from the Russian invasion of Ukraine: the fact that the EU has struggled to convince some of its partners to embrace its position should invite the bloc to consider that the future of EU foreign policy will not only be written in Ukraine. Only more consistent and bolder actions in other theatres will allow the EU to deal with wide-ranging criticism of double standards and ultimately with possible sidelining in foreign affairs.

Continuing to let the Middle East peace process disappear from its agenda out of fear of getting distracted from the war in Ukraine or exposing its divisions would be a serious mistake.

Continuing to let the Middle East peace process disappear from its agenda out of fear of getting distracted from the war in Ukraine or exposing its divisions would be a serious mistake

Secondly, the EU should resist the urge to hide behind calls for reviving multilateral frameworks or initiatives, and instead go first into introspection mode and redirect its energy towards redefining its own approach vis-à-vis the conflict.

Thirdly, the Union should resist further temptations to insulate its relations with Israel and Palestine from its broader commitment to the Middle East peace process. The EU should find ways to challenge violations of international law more forcefully. 

If the structural flaws of EU foreign policy – including its reliance on unanimity – make it difficult to act in unison, then a coalition of willing Member States should take the lead.

Taking action is more important than preserving the image of European unity. It is about defending the rights of Palestinians, protecting them against illegal actions, acknowledging the growing disconnect between the Palestinians and their leadership, and ultimately avoiding a new spiral of violence with devastating consequences for both Israelis and Palestinians.