Rami Khouri
The Jordan Times (Opinion)
January 22, 2010 - 1:00am

Just as the United States apparently is gearing up for phase two of its foray into Arab-Israeli peace-making diplomacy, some Europeans seem to be awakening from their long slumber on the issue.

Several symbolic or rhetorical gestures in recent weeks indicate that the European Union wants at least to raise its voice and profile on Arab-Israeli peace-making. Its approach is intriguing, given Europe’s potential to play a more activist role in promoting the rule of law as the basis for any negotiated agreement.

The most striking development was an unusually blunt statement last month by the European Union that called for an end to Israeli settlements, and for Jerusalem to be the capital of Israeli and Palestinian states. The initial draft statement by Sweden angered and probably frightened the Israeli government, which used its formidable powers of lobbying and threats to force the Europeans to tone it down.

The final text, nevertheless, criticised Israel’s settlements, the “separation barrier” and the demolition of Palestinian houses, saying they were “illegal under international law, constitute an obstacle to peace and threaten to make a two-state solution impossible”. It also reminded all concerned that the EU, “has never recognised the annexation of East Jerusalem”.

The European statement may be the most meaningful such gesture since the June 1980 Venice Declaration by the European Council. That statement caused a stir then by calling for the implementation of “the two principles universally accepted by the international community: the right to existence and to security of all states in the region, including Israel, and justice for all the peoples, which implies the recognition of the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people”, including the right to “self-determination”.

The Europeans did not follow up the Venice Declaration with any significant diplomatic muscle, and it will be much more difficult for them to do so now in view of the expansion of the EU from the nine then to today’s 27 members. Yet the European Council’s December statement could herald a new approach to a more constructive role in this arena, which would be to constantly remind all parties of the critical role of international law as the sole source of the legitimacy that is needed to frame, prod and perpetuate any lasting peace agreement.

When I asked several European diplomats and officials involved in Middle East issues how we should interpret the December statement, they repeatedly returned to the theme of the centrality of international law in driving diplomacy. Two key points emerged.

The first is that only international law can be the response for the solution of the status of Jerusalem and a shield against the extreme unilateral actions of any party that would claim Jerusalem for itself and exclude others. International law in this case comprises the several pertinent UN Security Council resolutions (242, 478, 1515, among others), international legal statutes related to the law of occupation and international humanitarian law (the Geneva Conventions) and previous commitments that should be applied to both sides with equal vigour.

The second theme sees Europe as being angered by years of Israeli deceptions when it comes to peace making, culminating in the brutal attack on Gaza a year ago. This viewpoint contends that Europeans are tired of being marginalised and taken for a ride, and feel they must regain their role as at least a beacon of legitimacy and morality on what is right and wrong, legal and illegal, in Israeli-Palestinian policies and behaviour.

It is interesting in this respect to note several small developments, such as an EU delegation of 50 parliamentarians from 12 European countries who are on their way to Gaza this week to assess conditions there a year after the Israeli attack and the imposition of a strict siege by Israel. At the same time, the British ambassador to Jordan, James Watt, wrote in his blog this week: ”We are all appalled by the suffering inflicted quite unjustifiably on the population of Gaza by the Israeli blockade. The British government has repeatedly called on Israel to lessen the restrictions on the Gaza crossings, and to allow the legitimate flow of humanitarian aid, and of reconstruction and trade goods, as well as the movement of people. We regularly remind the Israeli government of its obligations under international law…”

Watt also emphasised the importance of taking “full account of the exact provisions of international law” and upholding that rule of law.

The rejuvenated European focus on the central role of international law can only be a positive development, but to have impact, it must transcend verbal commitments or admonitions and venture into the realm of actions and sanctions.

Europe is well suited to play the role of champion of international law that is applied equitably to all parties.


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