Prof. Del Sarto’s Take on Palestine’s Future

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Prof. Del Sarto
Professor Raffaella Del Sarto


BOLOGNA — The new EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said this week that she wants to see the creation of a Palestinian state in five years, before her term is over. This statement follows on the heels of the UK’s symbolic vote to recognize the State of Palestine, and France has given hints that it will follow suit. All events seem to indicate that the West is reconsidering its default pro-Israel stance, and many are wondering what, if any, effect this will have on Israeli-Palestinian relations.

Professor Raffaella Del Sarto is Adjunct Professor of Middle East Studies and International Relations at SAIS Europe and professor at the Robert Schuman Centre, European University Institute, and director of the ERC-funded BORDERLANDS project. The SAIS Observer sat down with Del Sarto to discuss her views of these developments.

Why do you think European countries have been recently considering extending recognition to the Palestinian state?

Considerations to extend recognition to a Palestinian state reflect a general trend among European governments and publics to consider the Palestinians’ unilateral but peaceful strategy based on international law as legitimate and desirable to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is particularly the case in the current diplomatic stalemate and apparent lack of alternatives. It also reflects a growing impatience of European governments with the policies of Israeli governments under Benjamin Netanyahu. Independently of the question of who is to blame for the failure of a negotiated solution in the framework of the Oslo process, Israeli policies under Netanyahu have been marked by a massive investment in the expansion of existing Israeli settlements in the territories Israel occupied after 1967 and the construction of new one.

These policies reflect the ideological commitment to (Israeli) territorial maximalism that characterizes the majority of Israel’s government coalition. For many European governments, the settlement policy raises the question of whether the Israeli government is serious about reaching a meaningful two-state-solution. In this context, it is worth remembering that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry publicly assigned blame to the Israeli side for failure of the latest round of U.S.-brokered Israeli-Palestinian talks earlier this year. It also worth noting that, traditionally, European publics have been far more critical of Israeli policies in the territories than their governments. So, from this perspective, these developments are significant.

Paul Hirschson, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said in an interview with the New York Times “I don’t know how much of it is about Britain-Israel relations, or various different Israel-Europe relations, and how much of it is about Britain-Arab relations. Europe is in a way playing to the Arab world. Europe is in terrible economic condition, and they have to trade with the Arab world.” How much of this move is really just to adapt to the changing strategic relationships toward the Muslim countries in the Middle East? I’m specifically thinking of Iran, which is working on a nuclear deal with the West and who is one of the important allies in combating ISIS.

Economic and strategic considerations, together with domestic factors pertaining to the composition and preferences of constituencies, obviously influence foreign policy decisions. Britain and other European states are no exception here. But to reduce the shifting positions of European states on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to these factors alone is to miss the point. Starting after the beginning of the Oslo process in the early 1990s, the European Union and its member states have massively invested in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, originally at the request of the Israeli government, and until today with the tacit acquiescence of the latter.

The EU and its member states became, and have remained, the largest donors to the Palestinians. They provide financial support to the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas; they have been investing in myriad projects in the fields of judicial reform, security sector reform, training, technical assistance, and many others; and they have been financing infrastructure projects in the Palestinian territories. They are also the largest contributors to UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. Against this backdrop, there is a growing frustration in European capitals that all of this investment did not bring the Palestinians any closer to statehood, with Israel’s continuous settlement expansion seemingly underscoring Israel’s lack of commitment to a meaningful two-state-solution. The two-state solution, it is worth remembering, remains the preferred option to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict according to the international community (the U.S. included), as confirmed in UN Security Council Resolution 1397 of March 2002.

How important are European attitudes toward Palestine compared to the United States?

There is no doubt that the United States remains the main power broker in the conflict. The U.S. is the only actor with a real leverage on both sides, it is the main provider of Israel’s security, and it is the only peace broker Israel accepts. However, the EU is Israel’s largest trading partner, and while bilateral relations are well-developed, Israel cooperates in several EU programmes. For example, since 1996 Israel has been a full partner in the EU’s research and development programme. Hence, it is not completely irrelevant what is happening in Brussels and in other European capitals!

What does the West have to lose if other countries like France start to grant recognition to the State of Palestine? How could Israel retaliate in the face of souring relations?

I am not sure what do you mean by “the West” in this question. I would rephrase the question “How could Israel respond in the face of souring relations?”

What the growing recognition of Palestinian statehood entails is a growing acknowledgement of the unlawfulness of Israel’s control over the territories – which has in fact already been established by various UN Security Council resolutions. How could Israel respond? Well, it could step up its diplomatic pressure on European governments that consider such a step, accusing them of jeopardizing the peace process, and of being biased, for instance. It could try to influence Washington so that they seek to pressure their European partners to refrain from recognizing Palestinian statehood.

The Israeli authorities could also suspend, or threaten to suspend, cooperation in areas that are relevant to the Europeans, such as the cooperation on security (R&D for instance) as well as counterterrorism. The Israeli authorities could also try to render the work and movement of European diplomats, NGO representatives and staff, and so on in the Palestinian territories more difficult. However, considering the economic power of the 28-member EU, Israel has probably more to lose from souring relations with Europe than vice versa. Yet, it should not be forgotten that European-Israeli relations have a very complex historical dimension, rooted in a dark chapter of European history, which U.S.-Israeli relations, for instance, do not have. Israeli governments may also decide to target their response against the Palestinians themselves, for instance by increasing settlement construction or withholding tax revenues, so as to demonstrate the irrelevance of European diplomatic action.

How will recognition from other countries affect the tactics of non-state actors like Hezbollah and Hamas?

This is very good and difficult question. Regarding Hezbollah, they are currently embroiled in the civil war in Syria, a decision which has prompted significant domestic criticism. A largely symbolic recognition of Palestine is not very likely to change Hezbollah’s position towards what they consider the occupation of Lebanese lands by Israel. This dispute has in fact not much to do with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in spite of the traditional show of solidarity with the Palestinians. As concerns Hamas, it could go both ways: recognition could reinforce uncompromising positions and legitimate violence against Israel, but it could also have an effect of moderation towards the unequivocal recognition of a two-state-solution. (Note that the Hamas leadership has implicitly, and rather vaguely, accepted this principle before, without committing to recognize Israel or to renounce violence, though). But at present Hamas has more pressing issues on its agenda. These include the implementation of the unity government and the power-sharing agreement with Fatah that was agreed upon before the start of the Israel-Gaza war this summer, as well as the reconstruction of Gaza. From Hamas’ perspective, I would assume that facts on the ground, such as the end of the economic blockade of Gaza and the end of Israel’s rule over the West Bank and East Jerusalem, is of far greater importance than a diplomatic recognition of Palestine.

Would Europe’s recognition of Palestine make Israel more vulnerable?

The main argument against recognizing a Palestinian state is that it could undermine a negotiated solution to the conflict and thus weaken Israel’s negotiating position. It could give the Palestinian side greater leverage, as future peace talks would take the form of negotiations between two states, while it could also embolden Palestinian extremists and legitimize Palestinian “resistance” (which is “terrorism” for others). It could also legitimate a growing international pressure and intervention on Israel. So, from this perspective, a growing international recognition of Palestinian statehood would make Israel more vulnerable. This argument is however based on the assumption that a meaningful two-state-solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which would sufficiently satisfy most factions on the Palestinian side, is not in Israel’s interest. It is also based on the premise that the respect for international law in the resolution of conflicts is irrelevant or counter-productive, particularly in the presence of violent resistance/terrorism (which usually characterizes protracted conflicts). Both assumptions are clearly debatable.

The EU’s newly appointed foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini,  has called for the establishment of a Palestinian state in the next five years. How could the EU be involved in state formation without causing further problems in the region?

As I said before, the EU is already involved in Palestinian state-building, in line with the Annapolis process launched in 2007 by former U.S. president George W. Bush. In the framework of this process, the U.S. and the wider international community agreed that the building of sound, viable, and democratic Palestinian institutions on the way to statehood was the way ahead to resolve the conflict. At least since Annapolis, the EU and its member states have been providing financial and technical support for Palestinian institution-building in the West Bank, to which the U.S. is also party (Gaza is excluded, as the EU aligned itself with the U.S. and Israel and boycotted Hamas after it won the Palestinian elections in 2006, until Hamas would recognize Israel, renounce violence, and abide by previous agreements). The problem is of course that state-building does not work very well in the context of Israel’s continuous control over the territories, the West Bank/Fatah-Gaza/Hamas divide, and, in short, the absence of a state.

How influential will recognition from more EU countries actually be?

The initiatives of European countries, which may trigger an even wider international trend of recognizing Palestinian statehood, may be influential for the reasons stated above. Discussions on the recognition of Palestinian statehood in European capitals must however also be put into the context of recent steps taken by the EU and single European states as regards the legality of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories. These include recent EU guidelines excluding Israeli settlements from receiving EU funds and grants, a stricter application of the principle of excluding goods produced in Israeli settlements from duty-free entry to the EU under the EU-Israeli free trade regime, and the non-recognition of Israeli authority in issuing veterinary certificates for produce and livestock from the settlements (meaning that certain produce can no longer be exported to the EU at all because it lacks the necessary certificates). Single EU member states have also issued recommendations for labeling products from the territories, some major European retailers have already done so, and some European companies have decided to disinvest from the settlements. However, at the end of the day, the impact of any European recognition of Palestinian statehood which is not supported by the United States will be limited.

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