International Spectator

The International Spectator

Volume XXXIII No. 4 (October-December 1998)


The Political Role of the European Union in the Arab-Israel Peace Process: An Israeli Perspective 1
By Joseph Alpher


This article explores the way Israelis view the role—past, current and potential—of the European Union in the Arab-Israel peace process. It makes several assumptions. The first is that we can generalize about an Israeli perspective on this issue, without addressing the diverse views of different political groups in Israel. It is not at all self-evident, for example, that at any given time the political left and right in Israel take the same approach to the American role in the peace process. However in the case of Europe there does appear to be a broad consensus in Israel—essentially a negative one—regarding involvement in the political peace process.

The second assumption is that there is, in someone’s assessment—that of Israel, the Arab states or Europe—a potential need for an EU political role. This, too, would not have been self-evident two or three years ago. Indeed, two or three years ago the need for an American political role was seen by most parties as minimal, in view of the success of Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians in negotiating agreements bilaterally. Today, however, an enhanced EU political role is called for by Arab and European parties alike, together with a few individual Israelis on the far Left.

This appears to reflect a number of necessary prerequisites for third party intervention: 1) the parties to the conflict are incapable on their own of narrowing the substantive and/or procedural gaps that separate them; yet 2) those gaps are not so large as to preclude the hope of effective settlements; and 3) alternative third parties, that is, the United States, are not overwhelmingly successful, or are not always interested, in bridging these gaps. While the American success in brokering the Wye Memorandum in October 1998 appears to belie this third prerequisite, there have been periods in the past two years—which could easily recur in the near future—when American intervention has been unsuccessful, or simply not forthcoming.

In the European case, the commitment to a strategy for a broad economic, social and security partnership with the Mediterranean states made at Barcelona in 1995 is of necessity linked at least in part to the success of the Arab-Israel peace process. This factor alone might in any case mandate greater political involvement. Certainly with that process frozen, Europe feels impelled to explore its own initiative designed to advance it. This explains much of the timing of the appointment of Ambassador Miguel Moratinos as European special envoy for the peace process.

But the European Union, in its earlier permutations, sought involvement in the Arab-Israel peace process many years before Barcelona and the stalemate. By the same token, Israeli attitudes toward this involvement were shaped decades ago. While these have evolved in many ways, particularly in recent years, the Israeli view remains essentially negative with regard to a major European political role in the peace process.

This article will briefly examine Israel’s recent interaction with the EU, and focus on the role played thus far by Ambassador Moratinos. It will then offer an assessment as to Israel’s difficulties in welcoming a more expansive EU political role. It will conclude with suggestions as to what the EU can and should do in order to be able to play a significant role in the Arab-Israel peace process.

What this article does not do is discuss the Arab-Israel peace process per se, render judgements regarding the objective accuracy of European positions, or prescribe specific short-term policy options for European involvement. Rather, it looks at the desirability and efficacy of basic European positions in Israeli eyes, against the backdrop of the expressed desire of European actors to play an enhanced political role in the peace process. Because many discussions of Europe and the Middle East tend to dwell at length on the European and/or Arab case for such a role, this article goes into some depth and specificity in outlining Israeli objections.


Israel and the EU

Israel has an extensive economic relationship with the European Union. The EU is Israel’s leading trading partner, accounting, for example, for 44 percent of Israel’s total trade volume in 1996. Israel is the only country in the Mediterranean group that has, since the mid-1980s, completely abolished tariffs and duties for industrial products from the EU; a similar agreement with the US enables Israel to offer unique services in completing production of unfinished goods from one of these two economic giants and re-exporting to the other. Israel has also led the way in the Mediterranean in entering into scientific and cultural cooperation agreements with the EU, thereby gaining access to valuable R&D funds. 2

Notably, Israel’s economic relationship with the EU is lopsided in favor of the latter. From January through July 1997 Israel exported $3.964 billion worth of goods to the EU, but imported $8.640 billion. 3 As we shall see, this heavy Israeli debt to Europe—virtually half the EU surplus vis-à-vis the Mediterranean countries—is potentially significant when considerations of economic sanctions arise.

Meanwhile, the EU is also far and away the biggest financial supporter of the Oslo process between Israel and the PLO, and the Barcelona Process predicates a massive flow of European funds (some $6 billion) to the Mediterranean region, including Israel, by the year 1999.

Perhaps most significantly, many Israelis tend to see their country as sharing in the European cultural heritage, rather than that of the Middle East. Europe is where most Israelis vacation, and (along with America) where they feel most at home outside of Israel.

Against this backdrop, the gap between the European and Israeli approach to the peace process is all the more striking. It is a long-standing gap. It commences most emphatically with the Venice Declaration of 12-13 June 1980, wherein the European Council stated its support for a series of positions: recognition of “the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people”, including “the right to self-determination”; rejection of any “unilateral initiative” by Israel in Jerusalem; and the determination that “Israeli settlements constitute a serious obstacle to the peace process...[and] are illegal”. 4 By the time the Venice Declaration was issued, many European countries had already granted the PLO some sort of official recognition as the representative of the Palestinians.

When the Venice Declaration was published it created a considerable backlash in Israel, where virtually the entire political spectrum (save the far Left, mainly Arab parties) condemned it and rejected its contents. It is interesting to compare those contents to the most recent formulation of the EU position, at Amsterdam on 18 June 1997: “Europe calls on the people of Israel to recognise the right of the Palestinians to exercise self-determination, without excluding the option of a state.... The creation of a viable and peaceful sovereign Palestinian entity is the best guarantee of Israel’s security.” 5 In nearly 20 years the European position has changed little, compared to that of the United States and of both major political parties in Israel. In this regard, Europe has served in recent years as an effective catalyst of ideas for advancing the peace process. Yet the EU is no closer to playing a major mediatory role now than it was then. As Foreign Minister David Levi put it in Brussels on 22 July 1997, after meeting with Chairman Yasir Arafat under EU auspices: “It is our right to expect from Europe... to allow the two sides to try to resolve the matter without interference.” 6

The two most striking European initiatives toward the region in recent years have been the Barcelona Process and the Moratinos mission. The former, inaugurated in November 1995, is intended to constitute a partnership in three fields: political and security, economic and financial, and social, cultural and human affairs. Because its frameworks are non-binding, and because they are backed up by a broad political-economic concept of close Euro-Mediterranean partnership that Israel endorses, Israel is an active participant. At a time when the Madrid and Oslo processes are largely moribund, the Track II opportunities offered by Barcelona for exchange of views in security and other fields are welcomed by Israeli institutions. The Barcelona framework is today the only one that affords an opportunity for Israel and Syria/Lebanon to meet in the same forum. But the Barcelona Process per se has not sought an active role in the political peace process. It did, however, generate the momentum for the EU to appoint, on 25 November 1996, its own “special envoy” to the process, Ambassador Miguel Moratinos.


The Moratinos Mission

Moratinos’ mandate is framed in general but fairly comprehensive terms. He is empowered by the EU not only to monitor the actions of the parties and observe peace negotiations, but to offer good offices, contribute to the implementation of agreements, and discuss problems of non-compliance. He himself has no complaints about the authority given him by the European Council, and feels no need to broaden his mandate. 7 Indeed, he appears to be interpreting that authority relatively minimalistically.

Moratinos’ singular accomplishment in the course of 1997-98 was to fill, however partially, the vacuum created by the stalemate in the process and the reduced activity of US mediator Dennis Ross. Thus at a time when no Israeli-Syrian negotiations were taking place and no US mediation effort was being attempted, Moratinos made frequent visits to Damascus and Jerusalem. These were designed, at a minimum, to defuse tensions and, at a maximum, to advance the effort to find a bridging formula to enable renewal of direct negotiations. Moratinos himself acknowledges that, if and when that formula is found, it is the US that will step in to mediate. Indeed, in general it is the US that is needed for “the hard parts”, because it is the US that “can deliver”. As for the EU, “we know our limits”. 8

By the same token, Moratinos has been helpful at various times in maintaining momentum between Israel and the PLO, that is, in providing additional assurances for the January 1997 Hebron agreement, and in arranging a Weizman-Arafat meeting. And he credits the EU with moderating Arab-sponsored resolutions at the UN.

Moratinos believes that the EU will from here in be increasingly involved in the process, though always in a secondary role. It has more influence than the US with the Arabs, and it has the “economic option”, that is, the capacity to use its economic presence in the region for political purposes. The EU is also more committed than the US to the “global spirit of Madrid”—hence Moratinos’ efforts in Damascus at a time when the US was concentrating on the Palestinians.

While at least some Middle East leaders and diplomats involved in the process consider Moratinos naive and inexperienced, 9 it appears that thus far he has avoided making serious mistakes, and has contributed to the process within the modest parameters that he has defined for his mission. Because he has neither challenged American supremacy nor sought in any way to pressure Israel, his efforts have been welcomed in Jerusalem, and have enhanced European-American cooperation in the Arab-Israeli sphere. But are those efforts the outer limit of possible near-term European involvement in the process?


France, or the Lack of European Unity

Regardless of Israeli attitudes, one of the most obvious constraints upon the activities of an emissary like Moratinos is the evident lack of unity and consistency in European policy initiatives toward the Middle East. Two relatively minor illustrations of this disunity were the proposal by British Foreign Minister Rifkind in November 1996 to set up an OSCE-type Middle East regional security forum, and Germany’s abstention in the 15 July 1997 UN General Assembly vote to censure Israel over Har Homa (the rest of the EU 15 voted for the censure motion).

France is the most consistently independent of EU policy in its Middle East initiatives. While Moratinos downplays the disruptive effect of such actions (“I exploit French influence with the Arabs and German with the Israelis” 10 ), certainly in Israeli eyes the specter of pro-active French policies that appear to tilt strongly toward the Arabs is cause for serious doubt about the veracity of European initiatives.

The most effective French initiative of the past two years was Foreign Minister de Charette’s shuttle diplomacy between Jerusalem, Beirut and Damascus during Israel’s Operation Grapes of Wrath in April 1996, culminating in the institutionalization of a French role in the cease-fire monitoring commission (along with the US, Syria, Lebanon and Israel) that evolved out of that operation. Here Paris succeeded in staking a claim to involvement, based on its historic links with Lebanon, despite US and Israeli reservations and against a backdrop of EU inactivity.

The most frustrating French initiative, from the Israeli standpoint, was President Chirac’s October 1996 Middle East trip, in which he appeared to deliberately antagonize Israeli sensibilities by snubbing the Knesset in favor of the Palestinian Council, and by loudly complaining that Israeli security was preventing him from having direct contact with Palestinians in Jerusalem.

In late 1997 Chirac proposed—without offering any details—a new, jointly-sponsored American-European initiative with France in the lead: “France must seize the initiative while coordinating with the United States.” 11 Nor is this independent and confrontational French approach a rightwing prerogative in Paris. On 11 September 1997, while Secretary of State Albright was meeting with President Arafat in the Palestinian Authority to urge him to take stronger measures against terrorism, and gently but firmly asking Prime Minister Netanyahu to reciprocate, Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine, a socialist, was terming Netanyahu’s policies “catastrophic.... This is a French analysis which is today shared by a growing number of European countries.” 12

This divergent and independent French position is confusing—if not downright infuriating—for those who are happy to be supportive of American efforts or of the more modestly-conceived Moratinos mission. While some would argue that it was precisely this sort of independent French activism that helped motivate the EU to appoint Moratinos, and that impels the US and the EU to pursue their efforts with greater energy, it is nevertheless seen as disruptive by both Jerusalem and Washington.

Notably, however, the French are not the only Europeans who appear to Israelis to have deliberately calculated ways to score points with Arab countries at Israel’s expense, with no apparent benefit for the peace process. During early 1998 (while Britain was EU President) British Foreign Minister Robin Cook used the occasion of a visit to Jerusalem to engineer a provocative incident over Israeli housing construction at Har Homa. Yet more recently, the EU adopted a proposal of the Israeli far Left and initiated steps to boycott goods produced in West Bank and Gaza settlements.


Why the EU is not an Acceptable Primary Mediator to Israel

The lack of unity and consistency in European positions that is highlighted by French policy is, however, only one of a long list of Israeli objections to a primary EU mediatory role in the Arab-Israel peace process. Others include:


What Europe Can and Should Do in the Arab-Israel Process

Thus for European initiatives to be increasingly effective and influential with Israelis, the EU has to improve its political image in Israeli eyes. As a corollary of the weaknesses noted above, the EU should perhaps seek ways to: speak with one voice on the Arab-Israel issues; evince greater concern for Israel’s security problems; take a more principled stand toward the Iranian threat; and demonstrate to the Middle East that it can begin dealing effectively and independently with its own Muslim problems.

From the Israeli standpoint, the EU is not going to be the primary mediator in the Arab-Israel conflict. If a mediator is needed, it will be the US, or no one. Yet the ongoing aggrandizement of the EU, coupled with the escalatory progression from Barcelona to Moratinos, imply that the EU will seek an ever growing role in the peace process. Moreover, Israel must recognize that the EU of 1997 is a very different, more formidable and more positive actor than Europe of 20-30 years ago. Hence Israel must seek ways to accommodate the European quest for a more significant political role.

The EU, for its part, must define its strategic options in terms of both desirability and feasibility. One option upon which Israel, the Arabs, Europe and the US can agree, is to continue along the Moratinos track: being helpful in a secondary role, and seeking to achieve complementarity of policy initiatives with the US. Clearly, however, this will not fully counter the frustration of many European policy makers and scholars who argue that the EU, as main financial backer of the process, deserves a more significant role.

A second strategy reflected in many European and Arab circles, is to drop the pretense of European neutrality that is mandated by the role of mediator, yet is at times seemingly maintained by the EU with difficulty. Europe should line up behind the demand for a Palestinian state, and apply European economic and political clout, such as it is, to a lobby effort on behalf of this formula, in much the same way that Europe contributed to the ultimate collapse of the apartheid regime in South Africa. Would this imply European economic sanctions against Israel? This is a frequent Arab demand. The aforementioned move to boycott goods produced in the West Bank and Gaza settlements may be seen as a tentative first step in this direction. But given Europe’s highly favorable trade balance with Israel, and the large volume of trade involved, this would be an economically counterproductive exercise for the EU.

Perhaps more important, it would almost certainly be politically counterproductive: the Netanyahu government would effectively cite this attempt to isolate Israel, and to equate it implicitly with Iraq and Iran (indeed, Europe still avoids applying general sanctions to the latter!), as justification for Israeli suspicions regarding fundamental European hostility, and would thereby more effectively rally Israelis, and Jews elsewhere, around its policies.

An alternative channel where Europe has the potential to make a strong contribution to the process is in back channel diplomacy. The Oslo channel was in many ways a natural byproduct of close ideological affinity and veteran friendships between Norway’s socialist government and Israel’s Labor Party leadership—a combination virtually inconceivable in the Israeli-American relationship. Oslo also reflects a more advanced and effective European perception of the need to involve the PLO in the process than the US was capable of at the time; in this sense it is an outstanding example of a European contribution to the process. An Oslo-type Track II channel appears to be desperately missing in the relationship between Israel’s current Likud government and the PLO leadership. While Prime Minister Netanyahu may not be personally or politically inclined toward such a process, others in his government might be.

Yet another productive channel is informal or alternative diplomacy. As noted, the Barcelona Process has spawned a number of successful semi-academic forums that deal with security, the environment and other issues. Since the demise of the five Madrid multilateral tracks in 1996, these have become increasingly important in filling, however partially, a dangerous void. Further, the Copenhagen Declaration successfully brought together informal practitioners from four countries. In recent years the Europeans appear to have formulated and initiated such enterprises at least as successfully as the US.



From the Israeli standpoint, the preferable EU strategies for dealing with the Arab-Israel peace process are the Moratinos track, coupled with additional attempts to foster Track II dialogue. For Europe to seek to impose a South African style economic boycott on Israel would be seen as unjust and prejudicial treatment, and would probably be counterproductive. In general, a more active EU role in the process requires that Europe first be seen by Israelis to adopt more balanced policies regarding Middle East issues.

Joseph Alpher is Director, Israel/Middle East Office, American Jewish Committee, Jerusalem.



Note 1: An earlier version of this article was the result of the joint project “Europe and the Middle East” carried out by the Bertelsmann Foundation, Guetersloh, and the Center for Applied Policy Research, University of Munich. The views expressed are those of the author alone, and not of any Israeli group or movement. Nor do they necessarily represent the views of the American Jewish Committee.  Back.

Note 2: Europe in Israel, Newsletter of the Delegation of the European Commission to the State of Israel, August 1997.  Back.

Note 3: Ibid.; Central Bureau of Statistics, Jerusalem, October 1997 (direct inquiry).  Back.

Note 4: See L. Y. Laufer, The European Union and Israel: A Political and Institutional Appraisal, Davis Papers on Israel’s Foreign Policy, no. 54, April 1997 (Jerusalem: The Davis Institute, Hebrew University), appendix.  Back.

Note 5: Reuters North America, 18 June 1997.  Back.

Note 6: Reuters North America, 22 July 1997.  Back.

Note 7: Parts of the description of Ambassador Moratinos’ work were provided by Ambassador Moratinos himself. Personal interview, Jerusalem, 29 July 1997.  Back.

Note 8: Ibid.  Back.

Note 9: President Mubarak of Egypt is alleged to have said “give him three years” (meaning, if he can survive for three years, he may bring some benefit). Private communication.  Back.

Note 10: Personal interview, Jerusalem, 29 July 1997.  Back.

Note 11: Reuters World Report, 27 August 1997.  Back.

Note 12: Reuters World Report, 11 September 1997.  Back.

Note 13: Conversation with senior American diplomat involved in Middle East issues, Washington, 19 June 1997.  Back.