EU warning to Israel wields clout

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

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Ian Black
Guest Author

Related stories

US ‘brokered’ agreements on Israel: Wind of change or toxic blast of extortion?

The United States is negotiating with African countries that will see them exchange Palestinian people’s rights for improved economic and trade conditions

Not everyone is happy about Sudan snuggling up with Israel

Once Tel Aviv’s sworn enemy, Khartoum is apparently ready to end hostilities, but Sudanese refugees fear they may be deported

Alassane Ouattara: In the eye of Côte d’Ivoire’s perpetual succession crisis

His road to the presidency was anchored in contention and acrimony, and if his bid is successful, Alassane Ouattara will have ruled for two decades when all is said and done.

Fight over chief justice’s Israel comments grows

Last year South Africa closed its embassy in Jerusalem and Africa For Palestine alleged in its complaint that Mogoeng “expressed, or at least unambiguously implied” that this “political posture” was not right

An African free trade area is in our sights

Successes and failures from other initiative such as the European Union will be instructive, but much work must be done before the African Continental Trade Area becomes a reality

Mogoeng’s Palestine stance calls into question his role at the ConCourt

We can only conclude that he ‘willingly and knowingly lent his personal credibility — and that of his office — to a white-washing of Israeli crimes’

Subscribers only

Q&A Sessions: Frank Chikane on the rainbow where colours never...

Reverend Frank Chikane has just completed six years as the chairperson of the Kagiso Trust. He speaks about corruption, his children’s views and how churches can be mobilised

ANC: ‘We’re operating under conditions of anarchy’

In its latest policy documents, the ANC is self-critical and wants ‘consequence management’, yet it’s letting its members off the hook again

More top stories

Hope grows on Durban beachfront

Ten homeless men who turned a vacant lot into an organic vegetable garden are now reaping the rewards of their toil

Shabnim Ismail bowls her way into the record books Down...

The night before Australia’s Women’s Big Bash League (WBBL) final, fiery South African fast bowler Shabnim Ismail lay awake pondering how...

Hawks make arrest in matric maths paper leak

Themba Daniel Shikwambana, who works at a printing company, was granted bail and is due to return to court in January

Andile Lungisa: Early parole for the house of truth

Disgraced Nelson Mandela Bay councillor Andile Lungisa calls for a change of leadership in the ANC immediately after being released on parole

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…