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Chris Patten: Europe’s road to a new Jerusalem

21 décembre 2009

Accenture’s advertisement featuring Tiger Woods, which declares brightly that « It’s what you do next that counts« , should have as much resonance for EU foreign ministers as for the unfortunate golfer. Last week, thanks to the energetic chairmanship of Sweden’s Carl Bildt, these ministers agreed a comprehensive statement of policy on Palestine and Israel. It was not quite as good as it should have been. Acting seemingly on instruction from Israel’s foreign ministry, Italy, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Romania fought to dilute the original text. But what survived was still pretty good.

The ministers called for the urgent resumption of negotiations, within an agreed time-frame, for a comprehensive peace for Israel and Palestine.

They recommitted themselves to an independent Palestinian state whose borders, including those of Jerusalem, should go back to the pre-1967 borders unless otherwise agreed. They promised to develop their relationship with the Palestinian authority and to help implement its plan for building state institutions.

In addition they argued that Jerusalem should emerge from negotiations as the capital of both Israel and Palestine, that the fragmentation of Palestine between Gaza, the West Bank and East Jerusalem should be avoided, that Palestinian elections should be held, and, of course, that Israeli settlement activity should end.

Does it end there? After so much puffing and panting to get this far, the ministers could be excused for thinking they can rest on their spades for a while. But the words from Brussels should be regarded as the beginning of diplomatic activity, not the end. Europe needs to move quickly to do two things.

First, the statement should be the basis not only for the EU’s relations with Israel and Palestine but also for its work with international partners in trying to promote a settlement. Sensible Europeans accept that the US, the precise terms of whose engagement have become increasingly unclear in the months since President Barack Obama‘s pellucid Cairo address, has the lead role in trying to mobilise activity leading to a settlement. But that does not mean Europeans should fail to tell the US where they stand. Baroness Ashton, the new high representative for Europe’s common foreign and security policy, should encourage Washington to support the EU statement or make clear where there are differences of opinion. In particular, the importance of setting a time frame for progress should be underlined. Lady Ashton will presumably now be the EU’s sole representative in the « quartet » (which used to have three EU members) – the organisation joining the US, UN, Russia and the EU in support of a peace process. The latest statement should provide Europe’s agenda at future meetings of this lacklustre body.

Second, Europe can play a particularly valuable role in preventing the splintering of Palestine and in establishing a functioning Palestinian authority, ready to morph into the government of a future state. Europe should help prepare the Palestinian elections next year and monitor them. We should state clearly that Europeans will accept the results provided the process is fair. Our preference should be the emergence of a government of national unity. We should go further and say explicitly that we will deal with and support such a government, if it unequivocally supports a cease-fire and keeps to past commitments (it is a pity that Israel has not done so). Moreover we should encourage such a government to negotiate a settlement with Israel and undertake to put the results of any agreement to all Palestinians in a referendum, abiding by the result.

Beyond this, the EU should continue to work with Norway and others in building state institutions in Palestine and providing humanitarian assistance to Palestinians whose lives have been blighted by Israel’s blockade and other policies. But we should be clear that this cannot be an open-ended commitment to pay the costs of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. At present, international donors meet most of the bill for the consequences of occupation that should be met under the Geneva convention by Israel. Over the last year, the cost to the EU and its members has risen to about €1bn.

How long can donors justify this expenditure? If Israel continues, as its prime minister says it will, to build settlements, making an agreement on a viable Palestinian state all but impossible, should the international community simply shrug its shoulders and write more cheques? The money that I spent in Palestine on behalf of European voters and taxpayers over five years as a European commissioner has drained away into the blood-soaked sand. Many projects funded by European taxpayers have been reduced to rubble by the Israeli Defence Forces. Is Europe’s role in the region to be the paymaster for intransigence and the use of disproportionate force?

Europe’s statement dwelt at some length on Jerusalem, whose annexation by Israel has never been accepted by EU governments. This emphasis plainly owed much to the concern felt in European capitals as a result of consular reports from Jerusalem on the harassment of the Arab population there. European governments should ask their consuls-general in Jerusalem to report to EU foreign ministers regularly, and should publish a summary of these reports rather than have them leaked selectively (as has happened) to Israeli newspapers.

This agenda for Europe, based on what has just been agreed, could help (to borrow from Woods’ vocabulary) to get negotiations back on to the fairway. The present stand-off between Israel and the Palestinians is not the basis for a sustainable peace. Drift and despair are not options.

14 Dec 09

Lord Patten is co-chair of the International Crisis Group and a former European commissioner for external affairs. He is also an European Council on Foreign Relations council member.

This piece was first published in the Financial Times.

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