The collapse of the ‘national unity' government in Israel has sparked fears in EU corridors that a hardening of Israeli politics could further endanger the prospects for a peaceful resolution of the two-year-old bloody conflict with the Palestinians.
The concerns revolve around Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hastily assembled ultra-right wing caretaker government, which will take Israel through to February's premature elections. The new alliance has seen such ‘arch-hawks' as former premier Binyamin Netanyahu take up the foreign ministry portfolio previously held by Labour ‘dove' Shimon Peres.
“The situation looks very gloomy… It may well create an even more unreceptive environment in Israel,” an EU diplomat told me.
Nevertheless, the EU is determined to push ahead with its efforts to revive the stalled peace process. The Union is working with its Quartet partners – the United States, the United Nations and Russia – to forge a common ‘road map' to replace the current array of peace plans being touted by various members of the group, the diplomat explained.
“We hope that our American friends will put pressure on Israel's caretaker government, which has the power to take decisions unlike here in Europe, to accept this roadmap,” he added.
And with Israeli resistance to EU mediation likely to increase, particularly if the far right cement their grip on power, reliance on a normally reluctant Bush administration looks more probable. “After the withdrawal of the Labour party, the EU's influence on Israel has become negligible,” said Noureddine Fridhi, a senior analyst at MEDEA, a Brussels-based think-tank.
But there are doubts over whether the Americans will be willing to come down heavily on their close ally. “The EU has to work in tandem with Washington, but Washington is unlikely to do much until after the Israeli elections,” said Fraser Cameron, director of studies at the Brussels-based European Policy Centre.
An Israeli diplomat acknowledged that the political chaos in Israel would probably hinder progress on the diplomatic track, but said that the United States and its partners would continue to prepare the groundwork for after the elections. “But even if the government hadn't collapsed, there wouldn't have been much progress anyway because of Iraq,” he added.
However, some analysts think the US might be amenable to EU efforts to cool down the Israeli-Palestinian front in order to win European and Arab backing for action against Baghdad. “The EU's influence on the US is rising due to American attempts to build a consensus on Iraq,” Fridhi said, suggesting that it was time for the Union to push Washington to take decisive action to diffuse the conflict.
A shorter version of this article appeared in the 7-13 November 2002 edition of The European Voice.