A threat Israel must listen to

New European Union guidelines over the West Bank could force Netanyahu to the table — and lead to real talks

By Patrick L. Smith
Published July 26, 2013 11:43AM (EDT)
President Barack Obama, left, listens to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.                            (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
President Barack Obama, left, listens to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Remember when the U.S. used to call itself “the honest broker” in the Middle East, conjuring the image of blind justice holding scales between the Palestinians and the Israelis? You do not hear this term anymore. The “honest” part has long been too silly to stand, and for three years there has not been anything to broker.

Now there is — well, there may be. Good for Secretary of State John Kerry and his Kissingeresque diplomacy. Home after his sixth trip to the region in just a few months, he might bring Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas, the (unelected) Palestinian leader in the West Bank, to the negotiating table. We'll have to see. But whichever way Kerry’s efforts turn out, they bring the welcome suggestion of motion to the planet’s most intractable political question and one of its grossest humanitarian crises.

Look closely and you do find movement, believe it or not. But ironically enough, this will not come from any bilateral talks, which are supposed to take place in Washington. They are fatally flawed, a sort of diplomatic burlesque, and we will go into that in a minute. No, the prospect of even a modest advance comes from, of all people, those mild-mannered Europeans.

The European Union has made numerous attempts over the years to involve itself in the Israeli–Palestinian issue. Always it let itself be too easily rebuffed, and the Americans remained in charge. This is the source of the paralysis that besets the Mideast. Israel has long had Washington locked up, and long the American media; honest Israelis are pleased to acknowledge this. Hence Washington can do nothing imaginative and not much that is honest. It is as responsible for the failure of Mideast diplomacy as anyone in Israel.

This is why the latest from the E.U. must be watched. Last week, as you may have noted, Brussels announced that it would draft regulations requiring exports (mostly farm products) from the occupied territories to be so labeled. That covers $300 million in sales annually, World Bank economists reckon.

The E.U. will also issue guidelines barring European institutions from funding any Israeli organization—private, public, N.G.O., or what have you — that has operations beyond the Green Line, meaning Israel’s internationally recognized borders before the 1967 war. These new rules are to come into effect next year, when Brussels begins a new five-year budget.

What does this mean? On the economic side, not a great deal. Europeans have a right to know if they are buying products that Israelis are turning out on the West Bank. Emphatically I would want to know. Is this information justly hidden from people? They have no right of refusal? Nonsense. I wager the 6,000 Palestinians working these Israeli farms would want Western consumers to know, too.

But no one is saying anything about the economic side. The significance of the E.U.’s move is larger and lies elsewhere.

“This is not about money,” a dweller in a Brussels think tank told the New York Times after the E.U.’s announcement. “It’s about politics.” There is only one way to put it more plainly. It’s about good politics.

The Europeans are simply taking cognizance of international law, nothing more. The Israeli settlements in the West Bank are illegal. This is not a matter in dispute. And Brussels is not acting all that forcefully. By any decent interpretation of law, the products in question should not be labeled; they are simply contraband.

But even in its weak voice, Europe has said something that bears weight: We hold Israel to its recognized, pre–1967 borders. This is what is important. This is what brings the faint prospect of movement. You do not hear this kind of thing from the honest broker, which does not (and truly cannot for the political reasons noted above) hold Israel responsible to the law.

The Netanyahu government pretended to be shocked by the word from Brussels. Of course it knew of these regulations well, well in advance, but shocked was the suitable pose. With the departure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad from the Iranian presidency, Netanyahu can now be counted the most dangerous man in the Middle East. It is good to read (in the Financial Times) that he was instantly on the telephone to Brussels, “pleading” (the FT’s word) for a postponement of the new rules. You do not much get to see Bibi pleading when he talks to Washington.

After that came the other old feint: Those Europeans are threatening the existence of Israel itself. No such thing, of course. The thought is so tired it is not worth a lot of wordage, except to note that one Israeli leader, former foreign minister Shlomo Ben–Ami, turned it upside down and got it right: The Europeans have implicitly endorsed the sovereignty of pre–1967 Israel, which you would think is a positive.

The favored term in both Israel and Washington — the only word Washington managed to mutter, reluctantly and anonymously — has been that the E.U. was “unhelpful” in announcing its new regulations. You have to grapple with this thought before you can fully understand it. How is acting in acknowledgment of international law “unhelpful”? It can mean only unhelpful to the Israeli position in any talks with the Palestinians.

Diplomacy being what it is, there has been some giveback, some calming of the trans–Atlantic chop. This week the E.U. formally classified the armed wing of Hezbollah, the Lebanese political, social and military group, a terrorist organization. While Hezbollah protested loudly, and so did its Iranian backers, this means little in any practical sense. Everyone seems to be pretending that it was a righteous, free-standing judgment on Brussels’ part, having nothing to do with the regulatory plan, but that is difficult to imagine. It is a sop. It merely brings the E.U. partly in line (military side only) with Washington’s long-held and lonesome position.

Neither does it seem altogether coincidental that Kerry secured some measure of agreement on talks between Netanyahu and Abbas when he did. Bibi was awfully quick to make some surprise concessions after the news from Brussels and his failure to secure a delay. It went this way: E.U. plans for labeling and restrictions, Israeli sulking, Kerry arrives for his shuttle bit, an agreement on talks, and then the symbolic Hezbollah decision.

Those talks could come any time now. But there seems to be something just short of a consensus that they will go nowhere. For one thing, Hamas runs the (elected) government in the Gaza Strip, and it is not invited. Abbas runs the West Bank, but Abbas enjoys little support. He is a kind of straw man.

For another, too many powerful people in Israel, in and out of government, are hostile to the talks. The 1967 borders do not interest them; they do not want the construction of settlements in occupied territory to stop. Netanyahu seems to have agreed to the process to curry favor with the White House as he continues his frightening maneuvers toward a confrontation with Iran.

For their part, the Palestinians are in for the talks, but they want a binding time frame, and they are tough to come by in the Mideast. And the 1967 borders are the starting point for them in any territorial agreement.

That would seem to be that, but I read crucial meanings into these talks. Consider the chronology noted above as I make the case.

The Europeans did not threaten Israel’s existence last week, but they did add to a growing anxiety over its isolation because of its unacceptable behavior toward the Palestinian population. Numerous E.U. officials painted Brussels’ announcement as a signal that Europeans are increasingly offended by Israeli conduct. There is no reason to view the new regulatory restrictions in any other context.

In this way, attending talks in Washington is intended to enhance the Israeli imagery. It will probably help, even as not much gets done.

In another respect, both Israel and Washington are eager to preserve the longstanding framework that has protected their complicity — not too strong a term — while excluding anyone else from a role in resolving the Mideast question. That framework is long out of date — fatally frozen, even as its two participants protect it. This is how I read the timing of the talks in relation to the E.U.’s move. The one followed the other almost of necessity.

Let us think long term for a final moment. The Europeans have indeed made a subtle threat. They have politely threatened to bring law to bear in the Mideast, and they have brought the prospect of multilateral participation in a solution a small step closer. It is long-term stuff, as I say, but this is a threat to be welcomed. These are the true makings of a Mideast peace.

Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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