According to a recent “Two State Stress Test” conducted by the European Council on Foreign Relations, diplomacy is the only factor currently sustaining the two-state solution in Israel/Palestine. Any lessening of diplomatic intensity would leave the prospects for a two-state outcome even more fragile. Yet half way into the US’ 9-month push for peace, it remains unclear what if any progress has been achieved.
Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are thought to remain diametrically opposed
Although the US has largely succeeded in enforcing an information blackout around talks, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators are thought to remain diametrically opposed. Nor have the parties managed to agree upon terms of reference for talks, or even on how to build upon previous negotiations. Such is the impasse that the US is reportedly readying to unveil its own bridging proposal in early 2014 outlining the contours of a permanent status agreement in the hope of forcing both sides towards an elusive middle ground.
In preparing such a move, the US appears to be attempting to remove obstacles that Prime Minister Netanyahu has thrown up to frustrate talks and put off any discussion about borders. To assuage strong Israeli concerns over security arrangements within a future Palestinian state US Security Envoy General John Allen has just presented a proposal that would allow Israel to retain a military presence in the Jordan Valley following Palestinian independence. Moreover, Kerry is also said to be pressuring Palestinians to accede to another key Israeli demand by including recognition of Israel as a Jewish State in a prospective US framework agreement.
Needless to say US moves have elicited frustration amongst Palestinian officials who accuse Washington of siding with Israel during talks. Not least over its failure to rein in settlement activity and the unparalleled spike in Israeli construction in occupied East Jerusalem since the resumption of talks.
Such developments have caused considerable consternation amongst a Palestinian public already sceptical about the wisdom of resuming negotiations, as well as within the Palestinian negotiating team which momentarily resigned en mass in November. Although they have since retaken their seats at the negotiating table, the prospect of Palestinians walking away from talks over new settlement announcements still remains a real threat to the current US sponsored peace process.
Prime Minister Netanyahu of course understands this. And with each side seeking to manoeuvre themselves into a position from which they can pin the blame on the other, cynics might argue that the Israeli leader has actually been looking to provoke just such a Palestinian walk out in order to avoid any real concessions. The flurry of settlement activity that can be expected to follow the scheduled release by Israel of a third batch of Palestinian prisoners at the end of December therefore represents a make-or-break point in negotiations.
Given the asymmetry in US dealings with each side it will be up to Europe to adopt a more forward leaning and pre-emptive strategy to avoid such a scenario by holding both sides publically accountable. The recent declaration by the EU’s Quint (UK, France, Germany, Spain, and Italy) to this effect is a welcome development, in particular their stark warning that Israel will be held responsible for talks collapsing as a result of settlement construction.
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The two-state solution is no longer seen as a pressing issue by most Israelis
Nevertheless, ECFR’s Stress Test indicates that despite intense diplomatic activity the two-state option will come under increasingly unbearable strain should there continue to be slippage in a range of other areas. Besides the issue of territory and continued settlement expansion these include trends within Israeli politics which are moving away from a two-state solution, in particular within the governing coalition where government figures continue to express support for variations on a one-state solution.
Meanwhile, trends within Israeli public opinion are equally straining. The two-state solution is no longer seen as a pressing issue by most Israelis, with 51 percent believing that their country is able to uphold the status quo and avoid increasing international isolation or sanctions.
The challenge for Europe is consequently to find ways of better impacting the above trends along with Israel’s cost/benefit calculations by moving Israeli decision makers and their publics more in the direction of the choices needed to achieve a viable two-state outcome. Through its bilateral dealings the EU should also counter Israeli attempts to erase the Green Line by re-enforcing the distinction between Israel and the OPTs.
But as the TSST highlights, the EU’s attempts to achieve these objectives through the thickening of relations with Israel have to date shown no indication of moderating Israel’s stance vis-à-vis the Palestinians. As such, there is little reason to think that the EU’s 17 December FAC Conclusions and the promise of an “unprecedented package of European political, economic and security support” in the context of a final status agreement will be any more successful.
“If talks collapse, did we do enough?”
Instead, to support peace-making efforts the EU will have to be much bolder in articulating a ramped-up set of disincentives vis-à-vis Israel. In doing so, the EU and its member states can build on the success achieved in implementing its Horizon 2020 guidelines excluding Israeli entities in the OPTs from receiving EU funding. While insignificant in actual economic terms, the guidelines did set off alarm bells amongst Israelis and helped persuade both sides to resume negotiations at a critical juncture. Such actions represent a potentially significant milestone and should be emulated as Europe discusses the introduction of labelling for settlement products in member states or more actively discouraging European firms from doing business with Israeli entities operating in the OPTs.
Much of course remains to be done and the EU still faces the challenge of translating strongly worded statements into diplomatic actions. But bringing home to Israeli leaders and their publics the consequences of foot dragging in negotiations and the dangers of failing to implement a two-state solution can go some way towards answering a question increasingly asked by European diplomats: “if talks collapse, did we do enough?”