It’s easy not to notice silence. Particularly in diplomacy, where the most recognizable forms are easy to spot, but the more subtle ones likely to go unobserved. Sometimes that silence can carry considerable weight. Sometimes the implications are less profound than they should be.
There was such an absence around the United Nations vote last month, that upgraded the status of Palestine. The Obama Administration, as expected, opposed the Palestinian initiative, fulfilling America’s role. But what was absent was the spectacle of the United States’ UN team buzzing around the complex, trying to convince other countries, especially European states, to vote with themselves and Israel.
Not a lot was written about that in the mainstream media, but it was noticed by close observers of the US-Israel relationship. During Barack Obama’s first term, I speculated that he might be thinking of drawing back from the stranglehold the United States has had on the Middle East “peace process” circus. At that time, it quickly became clear that if Obama had such a notion, political pressure took the option off the table with a resounding thud. This time, in one example of how a second-term President can be both the same and yet somewhat different, it may well be just what Obama is doing.
Given the massive pressure in Washington, by groups like the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and Christians United For Israel (CUFI) and Congressional legislators who are either true believers, or who are bought and paid for on this issue, there are too many downsides for the President to do anything other than oppose Palestinians stepping out of the US-Israel shadow. Thus, the White House said all the same things it always does around the UN vote. But what Obama could do is refrain from the standard US practice of convincing European countries to go along with the American stance.
The message to Europe was clear: abstaining or even supporting the Palestinian initiative will not bring any blowback from the United States. And so, only the Czech Republic voted with the US, Canada, Israel and a handful of tiny countries against the Palestinian upgrade. For Newsweek’s Peter Beinart, this displayed a new Obama strategy of “benign neglect” of Israel, where the US would continue to protect Israel’s military superiority but, given the inability of the President to pressure Israel on such matters as settlements, Obama would sit back and let Europe handle that.
The ball was firmly in Europe’s court. Some might think that the UN vote, as well as the strong rebukes Israel got from many EU countries to its retaliatory decision to build thousands of new settlement units, including in the controversial E-1 Corridor, indicates that the strategy is working and there will soon be real pressure on Israel to change its policies. But, as with the US, this is not exactly what it seems to be.
Despite Israeli complaining about the EU, the statement issued by Brussels on December 10 shows very clearly that Europe is doing little more than taking over the tasks Obama has been responsible for the past four years. The particulars reflect the context of the European Union, so they do reiterate, as they have many times in the past, that they agree that settlements are illegal under international law, and that EU agreements with Israel do not cover any of the Occupied Territories.
But, while calling on Israel to refrain from further settlement expansion, they also call on Israel and the Palestinians to “…engage in direct and substantial negotiations without pre-conditions.” As I have explained elsewhere, the “no pre-conditions” meme ignores the fact that Israel has already changed the conditions on the ground. Moreover, thanks to George W. Bush’s 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon, the basic parameters of talks have already shifted to accommodating Israel’s settlement expansion. This is precisely why Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas cannot, on pain of political suicide, return to any sort of negotiations without an explicit agreement that discussions begin with the pre-1967 borders and that Israel ceases its settlement construction. Those are “pre-conditions,” yes, but not only are they reasonable. No alternative is remotely logical. As pre-conditions go, they are a lot smaller than the facts on the ground Israel has been creating for the last 45 years.
More than that, the EU statement “…calls on the Palestinian leadership to use constructively this new status and not to undertake steps which would deepen the lack of trust and lead further away from a negotiated solution.” This is a veiled warning to the Palestinians not to try to take Israel to the International Criminal Court. The right to do that was the single most significant aspect of the Palestinians’ UN upgrade, giving them, for the first time, a practical tool they could use to try to exert some kind of pressure, however minimal, over Israeli actions and policies. Indeed, the United Kingdom tried to get the Palestinians to formally commit to forgoing this right in exchange for their support for the UN initiative. Thus, it seems that the EU is doing little substantively different than the US has for years, albeit in a slightly different political context which leads to slightly different language.
Middle East analyst, and former Israeli peace negotiator, Daniel Levy summed up the absurdity of this demand thus: “The position … (is) a particularly ill-advised thing to do. Suspicions already exist as to whether the ICC is a tool for universal or exclusively Western justice. It is illegitimate to suggest that the Palestinians voluntarily deny themselves recourse to the ICC. Worse, it is politically naïve to imagine that a Palestinian president can publically make such a commitment. Israel is right to be worried about ICC jurisdiction. But the correct response is surely to avoid policies that would land one in front of the ICC.”
But apparently, that’s not good enough for the EU. They took the UK’s lead on this issue, much to their own detriment. The Palestinians are not going to make such a commitment. However, the EU stance is certain to make them more reluctant than they already would have been to take advantage of a power that is now their right.
This leaves an image of a Europe that is much more interested in seeing a new Israeli leadership that would act much like Labor and Kadima governments have in the past. That is, engaging in discussions, talking about peace, but never actually agreeing to anything. Labor under Ehud Barak offered the Palestinians an obviously unacceptable deal at Camp David in 2000, and the US and Europe loved them for it. Kadima was also well loved, despite having turned down Palestinian offers that would have allowed Israel to keep much of their Eastern Jerusalem settlements as well as the major settlement blocs and would have largely foregone the right of return of Palestinian refugees, an issue that is sacrosanct in Palestinian national consciousness. The problem for Europe seems to be Netanyahu’s hubris and flippancy more than the absence of any peace agreement.
Still, all is not lost. If indeed the United States intends to stop pressing Europe to allow it to chart its own course, the long term effects may be real even if the short term ones are non-existent. This is because the politics around protecting Israeli obstinacy are very different in Europe than they are in the US.
The influence of Christian Zionism, as represented by organizations such as CUFI, is far smaller in Europe. And, while European Jewish communities are influential, there is nothing in Europe that comes close to exerting AIPAC’s level of influence. Much of Europe’s support of Israel stems from Israel being perceived as a Western-style ally in the Middle East and, of course, guilt over the history of European anti-Semitism, culminating in the Holocaust.
The current Israeli shift to neofascism, however, is changing things. Even as real anti-Semitism, wedded in many ways to Islamophobia, rises in Europe, there is another wave among more liberal Europeans which is breaking from the idea that supporting Israeli crimes makes up for Europe’s genocide against the Jews. Vulgar extremists like Avigdor Lieberman are enormously influential on this shift.
Lieberman’s ill-advised implication that Europe’s recent criticism of Israel, and support for the Palestinian UN bid was somehow reflective of the old European anti-Semitism, was offensive not only to many Europeans, but to many Jews around the world. If Lieberman thought this would shame Europeans, it has had the opposite effect. The power of Holocaust guilt to keep Europe, especially Germany, quiet about Israel’s human rights abuses has been that it is simply there; Israeli leaders have never had to openly state it. Doing so undermines its power because few Europeans are left who were alive in World War II, much less involved in the Nazi genocide.
In the long run, this could mean a change in Europe. If the United States stays out of the way, Europe, with which Israel conducts much of its trade, can have a decisive and positive influence on Israel. Most Europeans want to see a change, so it is more of a popular idea there than in the US, where most people are largely indifferent, and more of those active on the issue are supporting Israel’s occupation than are trying to end it. It is, obviously, in the interests of Europeans, Israelis, Palestinians and the US to resolve this conflict. As those points become clearer, and Israel’s ability to use Jewish suffering to justify unjustifiable policies, change can come.
One can even hope that Europeans will be more able to heed this piece of Daniel Levy’s advice: “Part of the European analysis which led to unexpectedly strong support for the Palestinian upgrade at the U.N. is the receding prospect of a two-state outcome being a realizable proposition. That is welcome and overdue and suggests that, after the U.N. vote, Europeans should look deeper into political strategies that go further in asserting the urgency for change rather than slipping back into business as usual. However, it should also encourage new thinking as to what a fair, dignified and democratic Israeli-Palestinian dispensation might look like, challenging the existing two state parameters as being the only way to achieve a two-state, or indeed any sustainable and acceptable outcome.”
That sort of change in Europe might even be able to withstand US obstruction. It sounds like dreaming, and maybe it is. But this Jew would like to dream of that future, where the greatest expression of Jewish power is not holding millions of Palestinians hostage, without political or civil rights.
Photographs courtesy of Joel Schalit