The Peace to Prosperity plan that the Trump administration rolled out as a “Deal of the Century” on January 28 offers the prospect of a future Palestinian state and presents a new map of what that state might look like. The push has been largely panned in Europe. That may not be surprising given that it goes against much of the paradigm that most countries have pushed for in a two-state solution. However the lack of European engagement on issues with Israel and the decision of most EU countries to criticise, but not actually play a full role, has left the European Union sidelined.
This is part of the larger posture of Europe’s relations with Trump where the US has asked NATO and the EU to play a bigger role in Iraq and Syria and these countries continue to take a back seat. This leaves a Catch-22. When the US leads it is accused of unilateralism. When it asks for more participation, it receives pushback. Washington is expected to lead and also take into account multilateralism.
The EU said that it would study Trump’s proposals according to a statement from High Representative Josep Borrell. “This will be done on the basis of the EU’s established position and its firm and united commitment to a negotiated and viable two-state solution that takes into account the legitimate aspirations of both the Palestinians and the Israelis.” The EU says it is ready to work towards the resumption of “meaningful negotiations.” It wants both the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah and Israeli authorities to work towards a “genuine commitment to the two-state solution.”
In the UK, Dominic Raab welcomed the proposal put forward by the US and described it as “serious.” The UK says that a peace agreement could unlock the potential for the Middle East and that only the PA and the Israelis can determine whether these proposals can meet the needs and aspirations of the people.
France’s Emmanuel Macron said that he believed in “two sovereignties” and appeared to critique the plan’s ability to succeed. “You need to be two to make peace, you can’t get there with just one side.” France has suggested for the last several years that it could play a leading role in a peace process but also stepped back while the US worked on a new deal.
In Germany, the Trump plan was also met with critique. “Only a negotiated two-state solution, acceptable to both sides can lead to a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said. He noted that a peace process needs to be linked to “recognised international parameters and legal positions.”
Spain also said it would study the deal, emphasised its commitment to two states and said a plan should be in line with “parameters agreed internationally on the conflict between Israel and Palestine.”
The co-Chair of the European Council on Foreign Relations and former Swedish Prime Minister Carl Bildt slammed the plan, zooming in on the plan’s offer of some land in the Negev to a future Palestinian state. “For some reason, there are no Israeli settlements there, in contrast to virtually everywhere else,” he tweeted. His comment appeared to suggest every Israeli community is a “settlement” as opposed to only those in the West Bank. He called the EU to keep together and assert its position on Trump’s plan rather than end up “gone Trump”, a suggestion that some European countries were amenable to the American plan. “Short term this might well work, but long term it never well,” he wrote, arguing that in the long term a plan that ends in one Israeli state and no Palestinian state would challenge the legitimacy of Israel.
Absent in a response to the deal appeared to be the leadership from the Quartet on the Middle East – the group comprised of the UN, US, EU and Russia. PA leader Mahmoud Abbas had said he wanted talks with the Quartet over the plan, which he said he rejected with a “thousand no’s.” Russia seemed to agree about Quartet involvement. Overall the criticism of the Trump plan across Europe is that it is a victory for Israel and harms decades of efforts by groups like the Quartet.
Criticism is easy and it’s also easy to pay lip service to “meaningful negotiations”, “parameters”, and “legal positions.” EU policies have done the same on discussions about other conflicts, such as Syria. However, history generally shows that the era of 1990s multilateralism is past and that the current era has shifted.
In Syria, for instance, the Astana process run by Russia, Turkey, and Iran has sidelined the Geneva and UN process. Similarly, it’s unclear if the Berlin talks on Libya will produce an agreement or if Turkey and Russia or other countries will find their own way.
The Israel-Palestinian conflict has been a boon for European diplomats, a conflict that keeps on percolating and is relatively close to Europe. Some countries, such as the UK or Germany, believe they have a historic role due to their history of colonial involvement and the Holocaust, respectively. Others, like France, view their role as more transcendental, more about France’s ability to offer ‘a third-way’ in international relations than due to France’s historical role in Syria and Lebanon. For Sweden or Spain, the conflict offers the ability to be relevant in the Middle East with the knowledge that larger conflicts like Syria are not their forte.
The EU is particularly generous in its funding for the Palestinians, making it a stakeholder. It contributed hundreds of millions of euros annually to UNRWA. The European Commission says the EU is the largest and most reliable donor. European countries are historically a large donor to Palestinian development causes. Through other means, European countries also seek to play a role in Palestinian affairs.
The European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights gives to human rights and activists groups while the European Union Police Mission for the Palestinian Territories has helped train police and justice officials of the PA. The EU countries have also helped monitor Palestinian elections, which have been postponed time and again since 2006. The is also a European Border Assistance Mission for Rafah in Gaza. All this helps preserve the Palestinian Authority and keep the status quo.
In this respect, the European Union will continue to play a role on the ground but its contribution to the larger peace issue is primarily lip-service and critique. Brussels has other concerns, such as the aftermath of Brexit and Russian challenges.
An unwillingness to consider new paradigms and be trapped in the 1990s keeps the EU from seeing beyond borders and lines that date back to the 1940s and are largely the result of colonial policies. Where the US plan may not work, the EU role serves mostly to anchor the Palestinian leadership in an Oslo process that no longer resembles the reality on the ground in Gaza or the West Bank.