It is a rather sad testimony to the European Union that it has taken someone like Itamar-Ben Gvir to cause it to draw a line in the sand and refuse to engage with an Israeli cabinet minister such as he. However, it remains to be seen if this was an isolated case, or the beginning of a thought process which will lead to more coherent thinking in relations with Israel in the context of its relations with the Palestinians, and even more importantly presage courage and proactiveness in helping to resolve it. The folly of the Israeli government’s secretariat to select, of all people, National Security Minister Ben-Gvir to represent the country in an event that epitomises countries and peoples coming together after wars, bloodshed and abuse of human rights and replacing that with peaceful coexistence, is beyond baffling. Hence the decision by the organisers of the “Europe Day” event in Tel Aviv to cancel the diplomatic reception, and with that the speeches, as “ we do not want to offer a platform to someone whose views contradict the values the EU stands for,” was proportionate, almost self-explanatory, but should be only the first step in a change of mindset by Brussels in its dealings with the current dangerously anti-democratic and belligerent Israeli government.
Diplomatic protocol dictated that the EU couldn’t officially ask for different minister to be assigned to this event. Nevertheless, it would have been tragically ironic to give such a distinguished platform to someone who more than any other Israeli politician represents and promotes the despicable religious-fascist Kahanist ideology, especially on the day Europe celebrates both the defeat of fascism in Europe and the subsequent laying of the foundations for peaceful coexistence, unity and the protection of human rights and democracy. For the Israeli government it was another occasion when it showed itself to be completely unaware that it stands in opposition to everything the EU stands for, and that some figures in it are regarded as complete pariahs – and none more so than Ben-Gvir.
For the EU, this unpleasant incident has also been an opportunity to flex its muscles, something that has been missing for a long time from its policies towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For all means and purposes on this issue of great importance for the EU’s interests, Brussels has gone AWOL, and with Washington showing no interest in brokering a fair and just peace, what hope is there of bringing this conflict to an end? In fairness, EU countries are notoriously unable to reach a consensus on most issues of foreign policy, and in the case of Israel-Palestine the burden of history also sits heavily on their shoulders. But this is hardly an excuse for not playing an active role in ending Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and the blockade of Gaza, the latter being a form of occupation by other means, when it should at least be demanding accountability when it comes to Israel’s human rights abuses and breaches of international law.
Admittedly, the EU can always hide behind the need for its decisions to have unanimous support from its member states, and by doing so relinquish responsibility for what is taking place in the West Bank and Gaza, and the sorry state of millions of Palestinian refugees across the region. But this is hardly compatible with the principles of the EU and its own statements on the issue over the years in favour of a two-state solution or calling for a halt to the expansion of settlements in the West Bank. Moreover, lack of consensus within the EU’s governing bodies doesn’t prevent individual member countries from forming their own policies. Nearly 30 years after the Oslo Accords were signed with great fanfare, the two-state solution and with it Palestinian self-determination now seems a very distant prospect.
One of the steps that Brussels could and should have taken already in order to give more credibility to its commitment to a two-state solution, is to recognise the state of Palestine. Since the right of Palestinians to self-determination has been recognised by the UN since 1947, is supported by a vast majority of the international community, and is one of the pillars of the two-state solution, it can no longer be a carrot dangled above the Palestinians’ heads. In the aftermath of such a recognition Brussels must join forces with the US and the regional powers in advancing a peace agreement, one which addresses all the outstanding core issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians, including agreed borders, security guarantees for all, settling the refugee issue, and ensuring that Jerusalem becomes the capital of both Israel and Palestine. In the aftermath of agreement on all these issues the EU could also serve as one of the guarantors of such a peace agreement.
But regardless of recognition or a comprehensive peace plan, there is still enough room for Brussels to be more vocal about who is responsible for the current situation and how to alleviate Palestinians’ daily hardships. One of the first steps should be to make cooperation with Israel at all levels, including trade and military, conditional on the immediate improvement of Palestinian rights and living conditions. It could easily also draw a distinction between its relations with Israel proper and with the Jewish settlements in the occupied territories, as there is international consensus that they are illegal and one of the main hurdles, if not the principal one, to a lasting peace. Moreover, for too long abuses of human rights by Israel’s security forces and settlers are taking place with complete impunity, while the EU merely pays lip service to their accountability while offering only the occasional condemnation. This is not good enough, and it must be frank with Israel, as with its counterparts in the PA and in Gaza, that enjoying the privileges of economic, political, cultural and scientific ties with the EU, must be accompanied by adhering to the European Union’s values.
The insistence that National Security Minister Ben-Gvir represent Israel on this important day in the European calendar provided the perfect opportunity for Europe to stand firm and refuse to engage with him and what he represents. The EU must not run scared of criticising Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians and blocking of a two-state solution, simply because Netanyahu and his colleagues like to remind them of their past, or because they don’t want to upset Washington, or because cooperation benefits the EU as well as Israel. It would do both the Israelis and Palestinians a big favour, and be seen as more credible and less hypocritical, if the EU were to pursue an agenda that proactively promotes an end to the occupation, the establishment of a Palestinian state and the advancement of human, civil and political rights for everyone on both sides of the 1967 borders.