EU: from soft to soft power on Israel

Rather than quietly walking down the aisle with Israel, the should harness its formidable ‘soft power' to promote peace.

3 December 2010

In Israel, the is often regarded as too pro-Palestinian. And when compared with the United States' usually uncritical cheerleading, the European position can seem more hostile. But it would be a mistake to see the occasional criticisms of Israel delivered by European politicians as a sign of anti-Israeli sentiment.

It may come as a surprise, for instance, to learn that the EU – not the United States – is Israel's main trading partner, with a relationship worth a handsome €20bn (£17bn) per year.

Not only that, but Israel enjoys the status of a “privileged partner”. Recent years have witnessed the EU and Israel walk down the aisle towards a kind of urfi marriage in which the two discreet lovers have been striving to “develop an increasingly close relationship, going beyond co-operation, to involve a significant measure of economic integration and a deepening of political co-operation”.

When it comes to the Eurovision song contest and football, Israel is counted as part of . But it doesn't stop there. Israel “is a member of the European Union without being a member of its institutions,” as the EU's former foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, put it succinctly.

In a new book, Europe's Alliance with Israel, -based journalist David Cronin reveals just how cosy the EU institutions in Brussels and the capitals of numerous member states have become with Israel, although not comprehensively nor monolithically so, but without any democratic mandate to do so.

Despite the book's occasional resorting to polemic and hyperbole, which sometimes weaken the case it is making, it is a welcome study of a reality that is under-reported and under-scrutinised. “The European Union has allowed itself to become a fig leaf for an illegal occupation,” Cronin writes.

Although he might have done more to set the relationship in a historical context, Cronin chronicles the depths of EU-Israel ties in all spheres, from the economic and scientific to the cultural. Among the most shocking revelations is how funding under EU programmes – such as the Seventh Framework Programme and the Competitiveness and Innovation Programme – is being awarded to Israeli defence and security firms and companies which profit from Israeli settlements.

These include Israel Aerospace Industries – a developer of both military and commercial aviation – which is leading more than 50 EU-funded projects, according to Cronin's .

Even European aid to the Palestinians can benefit Israel and help sustain its occupation. An estimated 45% of European aid to the Palestinians finds its way into the Israeli , Cronin says, citing unnamed UN sources.

A perversely destructive triangle has emerged in which the US provides Israel with military aid which it uses to destroy Palestinian infrastructure, while the EU foots the bill for cleaning up the mess. “Are EU taxpayers really happy to pay to reconstruct what US taxpayers have paid to destroy?” the progressive Palestinian politician Mustafa Barghouti asked MEPs.

So, what can be done? Although Cronin does a decent job of describing the status quo, he dedicates a mere seven pages, almost as an afterthought, to outlining a course of action. Obviously disenchanted and disillusioned with Europe's political elites, many of whom do not seem to share their electorates' concern with the plight of the Palestinians and the festering conflict which is damaging also to Israel, he advocates vigorous and robust grassroots action, namely the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

“A campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions helped end white minority rule in South ,” he argues. “Supporting this boycott is a practical act of international solidarity.”

Although I personally do not buy Israeli products because I do not know how much of my money will go to propping up the occupation or violating the of Palestinians, any BDS campaign should tread very carefully. In order to be fair and just, it should be carefully targeted, as much as is possible, towards activities that directly fuel or profit from the occupation, so as to minimise the harm to ordinary Israelis and to avoid the further entrenching of a “bunker mentality” in Israel.

I also have major misgivings about a blanket cultural boycott. Instead, I favour a selective boycott of known extremists, apologists for the occupation and Israeli militarism, and those who advocate discrimination and stoke up hatred against Palestinians. But dialogue with moderates and ordinary citizens is crucial if we are ever to achieve the level of understanding and trust upon which a sustainable peace can be constructed.

In terms of policy, Cronin advocates that the EU should suspend its association agreement with Israel because Israel has violated the human rights conditions set out in the accord. Although Israel is in no moral position to criticise the potential application of sanctions against it, given its suffocating embargo on , suspending the EU's trade and other ties with Israel opens up a huge can of worms.

One difficulty it raises is that if Europe starts applying the human rights clauses in its association agreements more strictly, then it would probably have to suspend or downgrade its relationship with much of the Mediterranean and other neighbouring regions, not to mention a couple of its own members. If Israel, why not Turkey because of the Kurds or Morocco because of Western Sahara? Another complication is that sanctions have proven so ineffective in the past and have often created public solidarity amid adversity and suffering even for vile dictators.

Nevertheless, Israel's increasingly harsh treatment of the Palestinians and its policy of imprisoning them in ever-smaller enclaves needs a robust response, and certainly should not be rewarded.

For the first time, European leaders have, with the Lisbon treaty, the tools at their disposal, given enough political will and courage, to forge a common foreign policy on key issues like the Israeli-Palestinian question, whose resolution is not only in the interests of the parties to the conflict but also of Europe's own security and safety.

This common policy would focus on a gradual, but systematic, downgrading of Europe's relationship with Israel for as long as no progress is made to resolve the conflict. As a reward for a comprehensive and fair peace, the EU can provide Israel (and a future Palestinian state, for that matter) with the prospect of becoming a real, bona fide member of the union.

As European leaders are unlikely to make hard decisions on their own, public pressure will be essential. The Lisbon treaty also provides ordinary people with a tool to petition the EU, namely the European Citizens Initiative. If a broad civil society coalition can collect a million signatures from concerned citizens on a blueprint for change, then we stand a chance of redefining the EU's role in this interminable conflict.

This column appeared in the Guardian newspaper's Comment is Free section on 26 November 2010. Read the full discussion here.

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