How to save the two-state solution

Anders Persson
EUobserver

BRUSSELS – It is increasingly apparent for everyone who is following the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians that the window of opportunity for solving the conflict through a negotiated two-state solution seems to be closing.

Israeli soldiers at prayer (Photo: Flickmor)

The reasons for this are many, but most notably, there seems to be no real effort on either the Israeli or the Palestinian side – both of which are deeply divided over how and even if to divide the land – to push for a realisation of the two-state solution.

This is indeed a tragedy for the two sides because the current status quo will almost certainly guarantee future rounds of violence since few Israelis and Palestinians really want to live together in a single state, regardless of whatever shape or form such a state might have.

The lack of progress is also a tragedy for third parties, like the European Union, which have tried to legitimise a two-state solution for the past two decades. But without genuine support from the parties directly involved in the conflict, it is hard for outsiders like the EU to really change the situation.

The question of “what the EU can do in the conflict?” has been asked so many times that it almost equals Sigmund Freud’s legendary question of “what does a woman want?”

It might indeed be that it is too late for the EU or for anyone else to save the two state solution, but if the EU really wants to, then it must make a final push to delegitimise Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

As Peter Beinart suggested in a recent op-ed in New York Times, such an approach must start with language. Since the West Bank is not a democracy and since it is occupied by Israel, it should, according to Beinart be called for what it is: non-democratic Israel.

The EU is well-suited for starting a campaign of delegitimising the occupation and the settlements on the West Bank, because it is the largest bloc of liberal democracies in the world.

As such, the EU can effectively legitimise or delegitimise many parties in world politics. The EU was, for example, widely considered to be the battlefield field for the Palestinian bid for statehood in the UN where its 27 votes were considered crucial.

The EU is important as a legitimiser in international affairs because some two dozen other liberal democracies, countries like Norway, Switzerland, Japan, New Zealand and Canada look closely to how the EU acts, votes and speaks in various international forums. For this reason, the former editor-in-chief of Israeli daily The Jerusalem Post, David Horovitz, often referred to the EU “as a kind of global barometer of legitimacy in international affairs.”

The process of delegitimising the occupation must be launched simultaneously with a process of legitimising Israel within its 1967 borders. In words and deeds, the EU must have an ironclad commitment to Israel within these borders.

The EU’s statements must be tough against those groups firing rockets at Israel, including calling by name the leaders of the various factions to stop firing. Historically, the EU has been ambivalent on this.

The EU’s actions must include efforts to reach out to the Israeli public, something it has failed miserably to do during the four decades it has taken an interest in the conflict. Even if the strengthening and deepening of the existing framework for co-operation between the EU and Israel should be the long-term objective, less abstract things such as giving young Europeans and Israelis more opportunities to meet each other through travel, work and education could be one of  the short-term goals.

As a teenager, I spent six months on a kibbutz in Israel during the Second Intifada, an experience which gave Israel a place in my heart forever as well as an authentic experience of what it was like to live in a country that is under permanent threat from its enemies. This kind of deeper understanding is needed between the EU and Israel today.

The second part of Peter Beinart’s strategy to stop the settlements and save the two state solution is to impose a boycott of goods produced in settlements. For obvious historical reasons, many European leaders would find economic warfare against Jews to be morally wrong, and it is indeed hard to imagine the EU uniting around anything that relates to boycotts of Israel.

At the same time, in my work on my doctoral dissertation about the EU as a peacebuilder in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I have interviewed senior EU officials who privately told me that they see no reason whatsoever for settlement products to be sold in the EU. Leaked EU papers have also suggested that the EU should ban violent Israeli settlers from entering the Union.

Pro-Israeli observers might argue that too strong a focus on settlements absolves the Palestinians from their responsibilities. There is some truth in this, but the main reason why the statebuilding project in the West Bank is now hitting a dead end is because of Israel’s refusal to cede territory in Area C [the part of the West Bank under its full control] for the Palestinians to build their state on. Area C is 60 percent of the West Bank where the settlements are located, the same territory the Palestinians need to make their state contiguous and viable.

The statebuilding project in the West Bank, which has often been described as a bicycle that must either be pedaled on or fall over, is now falling over. The way to reverse this is to focus on the settlements and start delegitimising the occupation.

The EU, which has invested more than any other actor in the statebuilding project in the West Bank should take the lead.

The writer is a PhD student at Lund University, Sweden. His thesis is on the role of the European Union in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict