January has proved to be a bloody start to the year in the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict. An Israeli raid on January 26 in the West Bank left nine dead – the deadliest single day in more than a year – raising the January death toll to 30. A day later, a Palestinian gunman killed seven Israelis and wounded three others outside a synagogue in Jerusalem. Hamas in the Gaza Strip has joined the clashes by launching rockets into Israeli territory.
Meanwhile, the United States, seen as the international leader in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, called for the two sides to de-escalate the mounting tension. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has leveraged his pre-planned trip in the region to speak directly with Israeli and Palestinian leaders to prevent more bloodshed. Blinken’s visit with leaders might help ease the situation in the interim – but it is more akin to placing a Band-Aid on a hemorrhaging wound.
President Joe Biden has worked to highlight the American commitment to the two-state solution upon taking office in January 2021 and to distance himself from Donald Trump’s controversial approach to the region. But, besides reversing the diplomatic rhetoric, the Biden Administration has not veered far away Trump’s regional policies, nor has it made any groundbreaking advancements vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. And it is not likely that Biden will seek to prop up negotiations any time soon, since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict currently sits low on America’s foreign policy agenda.
However, the wound caused by the continuous cycle of violence in Israel and Palestine needs effective leadership to stitch it up and stop the bleeding. If the United States is no longer able or willing to serve as the bulwark of peace negotiations, it is time for a new leader to take the reins. One of America’s partners in the Quartet on the Middle East – the United Nations (UN), the European Union (EU), and Russia – have the diplomatic history and power to help pave the road to new negotiations.
Of the three, the EU is the most natural fit to replace the United States. The UN now finds itself unable to create any progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, most often due to the United States vetoing any resolution it views as unfavorable to its ally Israel. Since it invaded Ukraine, Russia has become a pariah state in the international community and lacks the legitimacy to solve a dispute as high-profile as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Conversely, the EU has substantial diplomatic engagement with Israel and Palestine, has dedicated “considerable time and sources to address the conflict,” and has the necessary legitimacy to act as an international negotiator.
For the moment, the EU’s diplomatic corps is extensively focused on the outbreak of war on the continent, which could dilute its engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian theater. The war in Ukraine, however, should not distract diplomats from pursuing a resolution to what some argue is “one of the world’s most intractable and geopolitical conflicts.” For over two decades, analysts have consistently labeled Israel and Palestine as potential flashpoints for large-scale violence. The EU even communicated as recently as 2021 that the Union “should renew efforts to reach a settlement in the [Israeli-Palestinian] Peace Process.” While the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may not be as geographically close to Europeans as the war in Ukraine, it should deserve equal weight in terms of diplomatic importance.
First and foremost, forging a peace plan will require the EU to balance its diplomatic capabilities to manage a solution for both the war in Ukraine and the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Historically, the European community has successfully juggled the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with other pressing subjects on its diplomatic agenda. During the Cold War, the European Community – the EU’s precursor – was busy grappling with how to handle relations with the Communist bloc. Still, the EC coordinated its efforts to release the 1971 Schumann Document, the 1977 London declaration, and the 1980 Venice Declaration. These documents and statements called for the Israeli withdrawal from all occupied territories, creating a Palestinian homeland, and establishing concrete parameters for solving regional disputes, respectively. While war raged on the European continent in the 1990s, the EU balanced its priorities effectively to seek a resolution to the Kosovo War while also working towards ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the Berlin Declaration in March 1999. This EU declaration reaffirmed the organization’s commitment to recognizing Palestine as a state in due course.
Second, the EU must establish deeper connections with civil society in Israel and Palestine. International legitimacy is necessary to solve disputes, but Israelis and Palestinians also need to have faith in who is leading the reconciliation effort. Israelis have, in recent years, viewed the EU with skepticism. Only 42 percent of Israelis in a 2021 EU poll stated they had a “positive view” of the organization. For Palestinians, there has been an increasing sense of feeling “abandoned” by Western governments in recent years. The EU does have an advantage in establishing closer ties with Palestinian society, as a reported 57 percent of respondents in another 2021 EU poll have a positive view of the Union. Direct engagement with civil society and increasing trust will help create fresh approaches to resolving the conflict and allow the EU to better understand the short- and long-term needs of individuals.
Third, the EU must leverage regional partners to push for reconciliation between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The 2007 split between Hamas in Gaza and the Palestinian Authority (PA) in the West Bank has become a considerable roadblock toward a two-state solution. Any path leading to Palestinian statehood must re-unite the Palestinian cause into one cohesive unit. Doing so will cross off a necessary pre-requisite to generate a new Israeli-Palestinian peace framework. Yet, the EU has listed Hamas as a terrorist organization and maintains a zero-contact policy with the entity. Working with regional actors, such as Egypt and Turkey, who have direct links to both Hamas and the PA, can help push the two parties to the negotiating table to work towards a political settlement.
These three steps are by no means revolutionary in the history of Middle East peace negotiations, but they are necessary given the current environment. By increasing the diplomatic importance of the crisis, creating deeper overtures into civil society, and leveraging partners to mend the Hamas-PA schism, the EU can help lay the preliminary foundations for a new peace plan. The vicious cycle of violence and status quo ceasefires between the two camps has gone on long enough. The time is now for the EU to flex its diplomatic muscles and be the capstone negotiator in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.