Although the Nobel Prize for Peace, which was awarded to the European Union, the economic and political amalgamation of 27 European states, on December 10, 2012, can be proud of some of its successes -- peace has certainly been kept after centuries of warfare among the European nations; France and Germany have been reconciled after long enmity, and the former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe have been harmoniously integrated into the European structure -- the EU has failed to achieve a genuine economic and monetary union; has been unable to complete its currency union, and it is even more dubious that the EU has contributed to peace in the Middle East in any way that warrants a prestigious award, or that it has been helpful in efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The latest example of the last failures occurred in the vote on November 29, 2012, in the UN General Assembly, on the Resolution to accord the Palestinian Authority the status of a "non-member observer state." All the EU members voted for the Resolution, which was approved 138-9 with 41 abstentions, except for the Czech Republic which voted against, and other countries, especially Germany which abstained. Ironically, the Resolution is counterproductive: instead of promoting peace, it encourages the Palestinian Authority not to negotiate with the Israelis or compromise on a reasonable solution -- in the belief that it can get more from bypassing Israel and going straight to the EU and the UN.
Even though the EU lacks a coherent foreign policy, and the member states have taken different positions on various issues, such as the Lebanese war in1982; the1996 proposals on a peace plan, and the Iraq war in 2003, the various declarations of the EU have led to a certain kind of coherence in the attitude towards Israel in particular, and the Arab-Israeli conflict in general. The EU has favored peaceful negotiations and a two state solution, but it has continually criticized the building of Israeli settlements, and considered them illegal under international law.
The Israeli settlements, which exist on state or public land, are under dispute as the question of sovereignty over them remains to be decided by direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. They are not an obstacle to peace; rather, they have been, and are being, newly used by the United Sates, and consequently the Palestinians, to excuse the Palestinians for refusing to enter into peace negotiations. This land was often offered in exchange for negotiations, peace and recognition, all three of which have been continually rejected by the Arabs since the Khartoum Conference of September 1967, three months after the Six Day War. In a defensive action, Israel took possession of east Jerusalem and the West Bank [of the Jordan River} , following its capture by Jordan in the 1948-49 five-nation Arab invasion of Israel on the day after its birth.
After multiple rejections to exchange "land for peace," the Israelis may well be wondering if they are actually expected to hold this land in perpetuity in case one day the Arabs might feel like returning to a negotiating table. It should be noted by the EU that Israel has evacuated its citizens from other formerly settled land in the Gaza Strip; that it might help to avoid aggression if the aggressors had to pay some penalty for their actions; that to the Palestinians - as they repeat, the land is theirs "from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea" -- to Arab and Muslim countries and even at times to the UN [see EyeonTheUN.org, Features, UN Map with no Israel], all of Israel is considered a settlement, and that construction of settlements around the area of Jerusalem did not prevent the 300 negotiation sessions that took place between Israel and the Palestinian Authority between the November 2007 Annapolis Conference talks and 2008.
The EU has also refused to recognize Israel's annexation of east Jerusalem as legitimate, and has repeated on many occasions the right of the Palestinian people to exercise fully its right to self-determination. Although unwilling to disagree too strongly with the United States, the EU has attempted from time to time to offer alternative proposals to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The first statement by the European group on the conflict was issued at the meeting on November 6, 1973 of the foreign ministers of the nine governments which then made up the members of the European Community. The statement declared that acquisition of territories by force was inadmissible, that Israel should end the territorial occupation of Arab land it had maintained since the conflict of 1967, and that in any settlement of the conflict, account had to be taken of the legitimate rights of the Palestinians. In subsequent declarations, the EC spoke of a just and lasting solution necessitating a "homeland for the Palestinian people."
The European Commission went farther in its Venice Declaration of June 13, 1980, which stated that, "the Palestinian people be allowed to exercise fully its rights to self-determination," and that the Palestine Liberation Organization would have to be associated with the peace negotiations. It has consistently held that Israeli settlements were illegal under international law. The Venice Declaration was followed by a number of other statements, from countries which later became members if the European Union -- all of them critical in some fashion of Israel, and all endorsing the rights of Palestinians.
European countries have been critical of what they claimed was the "disproportionate" response to the missile attacks from Hamas in Gaza by Israel in its Operation Cast Lead in 2008 -- without voicing equal criticism of the terrorists launching those missiles. Similarly, the Europeans disapproved of Israel's sea blockade of Gaza to prevent the delivery of weapons to people sworn to the destruction of Israel -- without comment on the large number of missiles and rockets being smuggled into Gaza, presumably to be used by the ruling terrorist group there, Hamas, to fulfill its outspoken pledge to destroy Israel.
The EU played no part in the 1991 Madrid peace conference, but it did -- together with the United States, the United Nations, and Russia -- become a member of the Quartet on the Middle East, which was established in Madrid in 2002 to mediate the peace process.
The EU and Israel have disagreed on a number of issues. They have criticized, among other matters, Israeli building in the area of Jerusalem, the settlements in the West Bank, the construction of the Israeli security fence, and the opening of the Hasmonean tunnel in September 1996, in addition to the Israeli right to east Jerusalem, which under Jordanian rule had not only been closed to Israelis, but massively desecrated. (Gravestones from the Mount of Olives, for example, were taken to be used as the floors of Jordanian latrines.) Further disputes involved the closing of Orient House, the PLO's headquarters in Jerusalem, which was being used to receive foreign representatives, thus converting it into a virtual Palestinian foreign ministry. The EU did on December 10, 2012 denounce "as unacceptable" the statement by Hamas leaders that denied Israel's right to exist, but at the same time also condemned Israeli plans for further construction of settlements.
Not surprisingly, Israel has considered the European attitude and policy as lacking impartiality, if not displaying outright hostility.
Economic relations between the two sides have been uneven, as well, with trade arrangements alternating with calls for boycotting Israeli products. Economic ties go back to 1964 between Israel and the then European Economic Community, and to the 1995 Association Agreement, ratified in 2000, and formally linked by the Association Council, in which each party granted the other preferential treatment in economic, commercial, and technological matters. The EU is Israel's largest market for exports and its second largest source of imports, after the US. Israeli exports to the EU became exempt from customs duties but this did not apply to goods produced in settlements.
Although the Action Plan of December 9, 2004 suggests areas of interaction -- among them, greater political cooperation; promotion of human rights; aiding multiculturalism; and opposition to antisemitism, racism, xenophobia, and Islamophobia -- these suggestions have rarely been put into practice. Despite a few perfunctory European criticisms of Palestinian actions, bias toward the Arab and Palestinian point of view, in both policy decisions and in rhetoric, seems inherent in the European attitude,
The Europeans are now acutely aware of the growing Arab and Muslim presence in their own countries, and the consequent political and social dilemmas this has created -- as well as the growing Arab economic investment there. The Europeans have, both directly and through UNRWA, supplied aid to Palestinian refugees, and given money and loans to the Palestinian authorities. The Europeans have economic interests in the Arab countries, which supply reasonably priced and stable oil imports, investment capital, and whose residents are consumers of European products. The Europeans are bound by institutional relations and policies, which include the global Mediterranean policy, a European Neighborhood policy of 2004, the Euro-Arab Dialogue, and the Barcelona process (Euro-Mediterranean partnership) launched in 1995, which aims at economic development, as well as supposedly at democratic reform. In all of these links, the EU has indicated its opposition to Israeli settlements, or modification of the status of Jerusalem.
If the ties between the EU and Arab countries are medium-warm and binding, the ties between the EU and Israel are less so. The EU often refers to Israeli actions as "disproportionate," blames Israel for lack of progress in peace talks, and rarely supports Israel's right of self-defense. The EU always appears "deeply dismayed" and seems to oppose strongly most of Israeli plans.
The excessive criticism is evident in the statements on Middle Eastern affairs made by Catherine Ashton, the EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy. She has been persistent in her criticism of Israel. Among her more recent utterances was a speech on October 25, 2012, at the Arab League's headquarters in Cairo, where she said that, "[Israeli] settlements are illegal, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible." Will no one tell her that the settlements are not the obstacle to peace in the Middle East, and that the Palestinians, who are so eager to make unilateral decisions, are not yet willing to engage in negotiations for a two state solution or anything else?
The EU has yet to appreciate the reality that the conflict continues because of the refusal of the Palestinians to accept the right of the State of Israel to exist. The Czechs, on the contrary, apparently realized that the UN Resolution enabling the Palestinians to be regarded as an non-member observer state was not only a unilateral action by the Palestinians in violation of the Oslo Accords, but also a direct violation of previous commitments -- some even to the EU itself -- to enter only into bilateral negotiations to determine final status arrangements. For its role in Middle East affairs alone, the EU does not deserve the Nobel Peace Price. The Nobel Committee might more appropriately have sent a donation to the Czech Republic for its truly noble act.
Michael Curtis is author of Should Israel Exist? A Sovereign Nation under attack by the International Community.