European policy guidelines are composed of small print and impenetrable bureaucratic language that are the product of long hours of wrangling in committee rooms in Brussels, but they can still send out a powerful signal. The furious reaction of the Israeli government underlines an important point about the world's most intractable conflict: Jewish settlements in occupied Palestinian territory are not considered part of the state of Israel under international law.
The explicit restatement of the European Union's position is intended to force an end to the ambiguity that has helped Israel to maintain and expand its presence beyond the old "green line" border since the 1967 Middle East war without incurring significant costs.
The EU's declaration spells out that there can be consequences for flouting United Nations' resolutions and international legality. Not enormous ones, true, but they still include funding, co-operation, scholarships, research funds and prizes for institutions in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, whose population now numbers about 520?000 people. Ariel University, near the Palestinian city of Nablus, is one obvious target.
Trade between the EU and Israel will not be affected, though there is a growing demand for the clear labelling of products originating in settlements – worth about £200-million of the £8.3-billion in Israeli exports to the EU in 2011.
The new Brussels guidelines are hardly the "earthquake" described in Jerusalem. But they do reflect changes on the ground in the territory that Israeli rightwingers call by the biblical names of Judea and Samaria and do not recognise as the heartland of Palestinian national aspirations. The EU's impatience has also grown as it has remained a "payer rather than player", bankrolling the Palestinian Authority and picking up the tab for a nonexistent or virtual "peace process".
In the background is the failure of negotiations, the lingering death throes of the two-state solution and the recent election of an Israeli government that does not really appear to believe in the idea.
Palestinians have clearly failed too, paralysed by their inability to overcome the differences between the Palestine Liberation Organisation and Hamas, but they live under military occupation, are the weaker party and are indisputably the principal victims of the 46-year status quo. It is with them that European sympathies predominantly lie.
Liberal opinion in Israel welcomed the EU move as proof, in the words of the Haaretz writer Barak Ravid, "of how low Israel's status in Europe has sunk and how dangerous [its] creeping international isolation is". The government's settlement policy was also a "clear and present danger to the economy". The anti-occupation group Gush Shalom called it "a bucket of cold water on the head of a drunk".
Automatic European defence of Israel, born of guilt about the Holocaust, is a thing of the past. Still, by laying down the law about the clear distinction between Israel and the occupied territories, EU governments are acting to stave off demands for a wider, more comprehensive boycott of Israel.
If Palestinians eventually despair of securing a state of their own and move instead to a South African-type struggle for equal rights, those demands will become harder to resist.
Tzipi Livni, Israel's justice minister and a veteran of negotiations with the Palestinians, warned recently that the EU might impose trade sanctions on all Israeli goods if the peace process stays frozen. Punishment might begin with the settlements, she warned, but it wouldn't stop with them.
So words from Brussels might turn out to be more significant than just small print. – © Guardian News & Media 2013