British and European policy on the greatest issue facing the Middle East is not bad. We seek a 2-state solution for the future of Israel and Palestine, taking the 1967 demarcation line as the starting point for negotiations. We call upon Israel to cease building settlements on Palestinian land, end its illegal occupation, curb the repressive measures that accompany it, and lift its economic blockade of Gaza.
In response, Israel does none of these things.
Israel is an ally and preferred trading partner of the European Union. Our military and security forces share (some) information and make reciprocal training arrangements. Money from European taxpayers is even used to subsidise various Israeli economic activities.
Israel ignores every request we make. Its attitude towards us is not simply rude, it is contemptuous.
The reason is simple. Israeli politicians have no fear that the European Union will ever back up its strong words with any deeds. They regard us weak and toothless. They are confident that Europe only has to be reminded of the sins of the Second World War to be cowed by guilt and shame.
But public sentiment has shifted over the years. The plucky little Israel of 1967 has become the aggressive bully of today, known for killing 100 Palestinians in Gaza for every Israeli death, for stealing Palestinian land even when insisting that it wants a negotiated peace, and for acts of piracy and murder upon the high seas. If our governments were to say ‘enough is enough’ they would have much public support.
So why do the Foreign Ministers of the European Union not act? Why, for example, do not they not tell Israel: “if you do not cease building settlements, the EU-Israel Association Agreement will be suspended with effect from 1 January 2011.
I’ve just been to the Foreign Office to meet with Alistair Burt, the minister with responsibility for the Middle East, to put this question to him. In a room fit for the British Empire, Alistair munched his way through a plastic triangle of sandwiches and a packet of crisps while I voiced my frustration and bemusement at our failure.
I like Alistair a lot, and shall keep the details of our conversation confidential. He was well informed and appreciated the position fully. We both agreed (he as a former chairman of Conservative Friends of Israel) that it was in Israel’s long term interest to negotiate an agreement with the Palestinians, but in response to the key question his answer was the same as I have heard many times from ministers and European Commissioners. In summary it was this:
“Yes Israel’s approach is wrong, and it very unfortunate that it does not do as we request, but the situation is very delicate at the moment. We believe that the two sides genuinely would like the negotiations now taking place to make progress, and we do not want to do anything that might detract from that. But Israel must understand that we could get tough in future.”
So that’s that. More gentle words for now, the suggestion of something stronger in future.
But how often have we heard that before?