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Arab Israel Conflict
Netanyahu is losing Europe’s goodwill
From the Financial Times of Mon, 10 Nov 2014 13:25:19 GMT
Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu©Reuters

Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu

Sweden’s new government last month recognised the state of Palestine, and Britain’s House of Commons and Ireland’s senate called on their governments to follow suit. Now, France’s governing Socialists plan to bring a similar resolution to the national assembly, while Federica Mogherini, the new EU foreign policy chief, recently announced that she wants to see a Palestinian state established during her term.

Is European impatience with Israeli intransigence towards the Palestinians reaching a point of rupture? Is EU frustration with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister’s expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land, proscribed by international law, inclining Europeans to force the issue of a Palestinian state?

Europe has always had a more complicated relationship with Israel than the US, the indispensable and invariably unconditional patron of the Jewish state. While Europe recognised Palestinians’ right to their own homeland almost four decades ago, Israel has tended almost to patronise the EU as a politically negligible economic power, several of whose member states, not just Germany with its history of the Nazis and the Jewish Holocaust, have a history of anti-Semitism for which to atone.

Until recently, successive Israeli governments somehow managed to convince Europeans that any political pressure would result in their being excluded from peace talks that long ago ceased even to be mere process. But Israel has been slow to realise there has been a change in sentiment in Europe, not sudden but solid, that could eventually present a challenge to its legitimacy. The shift follows a sharp rise in hostility towards Israel in western Europe, with BBC polls carried out by Gallup recording between two-thirds and three-quarters of people in the UK, Spain, Germany, France and Italy holding negative views of Israel’s policy.

Sweden, furthermore, is not the first EU member to recognise Palestine. Eight other member states do, even if all of them took that decision before joining the EU. More relevant is that half of the EU, 14 members including France, voted to admit Palestine as an observer state at the UN in December 2012. The Netanyahu government dismissed that vote as a non-event, yet moved heaven and earth diplomatically to influence it and was stung when Germany abstained.

That should not have been a surprise. In February 2011, Germany, which had abstained several times during the second intifada a decade earlier, voted in the UN Security Council to condemn Israel’s settlements, in a 14-1 result vetoed by the US.

Chancellor Angela Merkel lost all trust in Mr Netanyahu long ago. But German diplomats say Berlin is coming to the conclusion that neither this nor any other likely Israeli coalition is willing or able to roll back the occupation to boundaries that would make a Palestinian state viable. And that while all Israeli governments have intended the main settlements to be permanent, Mr Netanyahu’s revival of plans to expand settlements east and south of Jerusalem places a viable and contiguous Palestinian state beyond reach.

Without German support, the EU last year would probably not have adopted rules prohibiting grants to Israeli entities operating in illegal settlements. Yet the EU still let Israel into its Horizon 2020, the only non-member state in this €80bn research and development programme, making Israeli high-tech high fliers eligible for European public money provided it is not spent in the settlements.

While these rules are quite distinct from the international campaign to boycott Israel until it withdraws from the occupied West Bank and Arab East Jerusalem, they are in the same political ballpark and some European pension funds have started pulling their investments in Israeli banks with branches in the settlements, acting on EU rules but probably also in response to activists.

Recognition of Palestine as a state is likely to grow in and outside the EU; Sweden was the 135th country to sign up. As current, and former, Israeli leaders have warned, Israel faces international ostracism unless it shows itself willing to make a deal on Palestine. Yet if avenues to a separate state continue to be closed, the Palestinians may opt for an apartheid-style struggle for equal rights within a single state. For now, the EU has targeted the settlements. But whatever its intentions, it is not hard to discern an eventual dead end at which Europeans clamour for a more general boycott.

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