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An opportunity to rethink the Middle East Peace Process


European states and the EU have an opportunity to re-shape the international discourse and agenda on the Middle East Peace process, following the victory of Joe Biden in the U.S. election.

Over the past four years, the administration of outgoing U.S. President Donald Trump has been determined to legitimize the Israeli occupation of Palestinian territories and leave a lasting legacy in support of the ‘Greater Israel’ agenda.

On 19 November, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the first high-level US government official to visit an illegal Israeli settlement, just days after the approval of a new Israeli plan to build more than 1,200 new homes in East Jerusalem. The U.S. State Department also issued new guidelines requiring that products coming from the West Bank be labelled as “Made in Israel”.

These moves are only the last in a long line of steps that the Trump administration has taken to support the expansionist vision of the Israeli right wing and undermine the internationally accepted parameters for resolving the conflict – a two-state solution based on a return to the 1967 borders.

In this context, the election of Joe Biden comes as a relief for the Palestinian Authority and its leadership, who are desperately hoping for a reset in the U.S.’s approach. But will the new U.S. administration take on the role of honest broker and facilitator of negotiations that the Palestinian leadership is hoping for? There are several reasons for the Palestinians to temper their optimism.  

The first is that Israel-Palestine is not expected to be a high priority for the Biden administration. Beyond the obvious domestic priorities of Covid-19 and the U.S. economy, the new administration is likely to focus on more pressing issues in foreign policy, such as its relationship with China and Iran. Second, Biden and his Secretary of State Anthony Blinken have a track record of centrism and strong support for Israel. While we can expect Biden to withdraw Trump’s one-sided ‘Peace and Prosperity’ plan and restore the U.S. bilateral relationship with the Palestinians, the new administration will face a difficult task in walking back promises to Israel in the context of the Trump plan while maintaining Israel as a close ally and partner.

Nevertheless, we can expect a clear shift in approach on Israel-Palestine from the Biden administration, starting with a change in discourse in the coming months. The language of multilateralism, human rights and international law will likely be back. This opens an important opportunity for European policymakers to re-establish a more balanced trans-Atlantic approach to the conflict, rooted in international law and UN Security Council resolution 2334.

European actors have played a significant – and often underestimated – role in recent years, preserving a framework for conflict resolution based on international law and deterring Israel’s de jure annexation of West Bank territory earlier this year. This gives the EU and European states credibility to use their leverage and political capital to reverse some of the damage of the Trump era and begin laying the building blocks for a future peace.

There are no quick fixes; no shortcuts to reviving a meaningful peace process. A rushed resumption of final status peace negotiations would be very unlikely to lead to a positive outcome. The extreme imbalance of power between the parties, the unresolved Palestinian rift between Fatah and Hamas, and the lack of preparedness and trust to restart negotiations, would make final status talks doomed to fail at this stage.

Rather, Biden’s election should offer policymakers – both in the U.S. and in Europe – the political opportunity and space for a rethink. For too long, political energies and resources have focused on supporting a largely illusory “peace process” at the expense of supporting the needs, rights, and aspirations of vulnerable people. An inversion of these priorities – human rights before peace processing – offers an alternative path forward.

By adopting and championing a ‘rights-based’ approach, European policymakers could respond more directly to the needs of people on the ground (rather than the demands of political leaders), level the playing field, empower moderates on both sides, and shift the responsibility to the blockers who are happy to settle for ‘no solutionism’ in perpetuity.

This is not to suggest that Europe should cease supporting a two-state solution. Indeed, a two-state solution based on the internally accepted parameters should protect and promote the rights of all people – Israeli and Palestinian – between the Jordan river and the Mediterranean Sea. The risk derives from bending these parameters.

In the absence of progress towards a two-state solution, Europe should be clear that it cannot accept the perpetuation of a discriminatory system which institutionalises the denial of rights to Palestinians in the occupied territories. The only acceptable alternative to a two-state solution (based on the international parameters) would be a one-state solution – such as a binational federated or confederated entity – which guarantees full rights, freedoms, and enfranchisement of all people within its borders.

The Biden administration could be a partner in this reframed approach. Promoting human rights is explicitly part of Biden’s agenda, and it has become particularly salient following the ‘Black Lives Matter’ movement and America’s reckoning with systemic racial discrimination at home. It would be consistent for Biden to reflect the Democratic Party’s domestic social justice platform in his foreign policy regarding major human rights issues abroad. By highlighting the consistency of this approach as it applies to Israel-Palestine, European actors could lead U.S. policy in a more productive direction.

European states and the EU do not lack policy options to seize the opportunity of the new U.S. administration, starting by clearly communicating the EU parameters and priorities for Israel-Palestine to the incoming Biden team. Maintaining Europe’s preventive diplomacy regarding Israel’s threat to annex West Bank territory will be vital. Policymakers should keep alive the full range of policy options for influencing Israel’s behaviour, particularly settlement construction and other policies which obstruct a viable two-state solution. In parallel, European diplomacy should focus on influencing the Palestinian leadership, supporting reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas, and working towards a pluralistic and democratically representative Palestinian polity through free and fair elections. These are the steps which would establish more conducive conditions for future peace efforts.

In sum, the coming months offer an opening for European States and the EU to re-shape the international discourse and agenda on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Biden’s Presidency provides an opportunity, European leadership will be needed to seize it.

Authors: Jamie Pleydell-Bouverie and Gabriele Tallone