Association Agreement = EU Leverage Over Israel?

Christian or Jew, Moslim or Shinto, the whole world’s 2008 holiday spirit has taken a severe beaten ever since right after Christmas Day itself by the still-escalating violent tit-for-tat being played out in the Gaza Strip between Israel and Hamas. The whole affair seems to be a classic case of escalating rage on both sides spiralling to some ultimate calamity, with little room to try to talk sense to either side to draw them back from the brink. Prospects for any satisfactory resolution are considerably worsened by a political vacuum where the world’s eyes would ordinarily turn for the exercise of some sort of restraint on Israel, namely Washington: at only a little over twenty days to his departure, George W. Bush utterly lacks any more credibility generally, much less on Middle East matters (warning: link leads to rude language!), while President-Elect Obama is sticking with his “one president at a time” mantra.

Could this provide an opening for the EU to try to provide some helpful intervention of its own? Maybe one last hurrah for what has turned out to be an extraordinarily activist six-month EU presidency for France and her president, Nicolas Sarkozy? That is a tempting thought, except that Sarkozy, his wife Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, and various other family are currently on holiday in Brazil. (They had to fly there, where it’s warm at this time of year, for an official state visit, you see. It all amounts to little more than the sort of tacking-on-a-vacation-to-the-end-of-a-company-paid-business-trip in which I wager most of the readers of this weblog have indulged at least once.) Nonetheless, Thijs Bermand and Tineke Bennema of the Dutch daily Trouw offer the proposition that the EU does have a role that it can play by virtue of the Assocition Agreement with Israel that is still pending (EU can make a difference in MidEast conflict).

On its face, that idea does seem plausible, as this Association Agreement is something that you can imagine that Israel would be eager to have. Apart from its sheer symbolic value as a political endorsement, this Agreement would set in motion all sorts of EU-Israel consultation and cooperation in a wide array of fields such as economic matters, science, defense, and internal and external security. But the thing is, a number of EU officials are also well aware of the sort of endorsement it would confer on the Jewish state, so that its path to final approval has been tortuous and is still incomplete. As Bermand and Bennema report, originally one condition for its approval was that Israel submit a detailed and signed “concrete action-plan” towards the concluding of a peace between itself and the Palestinians. That requirement was subsequently watered-down enough to not be in way of the Agreement’s approval anymore, but the EU Parliament still voted to put it aside – and that was prior to the recent expiration of the Israeli-Hamas cease-fire in Gaza that set off all the violence. No, even before all of that enough parliamentarians were determined not to reward Israel in any way for such things as its illegal settlements in the West Bank and its disrespect for Palestinian human rights generally – including its two-years-and-counting blockade of the Gaza Strip – and held the treaty up. But then the EU Council (the body, or rather set of bodies, representing the individual EU member-states) made it clear that it intended to move the approval process forward nonetheless.

The Agreement’s exact status in light of those contrary developments is therefore unclear to all but experts in EU processes. Nevertheless, it is also clear that it is by no means ready yet for approval, yet that all that is missing is some sort of leadership to arise to coordinate the Union’s approach to the matter in such a way that the prospect of successfully concluding such an Agreement could be used as a powerful card to try to influence Israeli behavior – or so, at least, Berman and Bennema believe. The requirement for some sort of written peace plan for the Palestinians from Israel, after all, was originally part of what the EU was demanding. Admittedly, anyone at all familiar with the long-standing patterns of Israeli government treatment of such outside demands knows that that was ludicrous, and it was accordingly taken out of the picture, but in that same spirit there should still be some scope, in the right hands, for the EU to hold out the prospect of this Agreement to exert some (friendly) pressure on the Israelis. Yes, as the authors admit, trying to resuscitate the peace-process this way may amount to “crying in the desert,” but surely something, anything must be done to stop the horrific bloodshed now going on. It’s at least worth a try.

Structurally Simply Not in the Cards

Yes, I suppose any and everything is worth a try as far-too-many innocents are being killed and wounded, both Palestinian and Israeli. (The former, of course, far exceed the latter.) But the problems that stand in the way of any success at all seem insurmountable. I’ll just mention the complications introduced into the situation by the fact that, in effect, there is also a current political vacuum in Jerusalem, with Ehud Olmert only a caretaker (and, to a great extent, discredited) Israeli prime minister awaiting elections to choose his successor: I really don’t know enough about the Israeli political scene to be able to evaluate how that affects the situation (and remember, in addition, that Israeli policy might now well be in the grip of an irrational rage not amenable to any rational human intervention in the first place). On the other hand, there is also a certain political vacuum on the EU’s side, one that is in fact not just episodic but rather built into current EU structures. Put simply, with Sarkozy away on vacation until the New Year his services will no longer available to the EU, as another country takes over the presidency on 1 January, namely the Czech Republic. It is Václav Klaus who takes up the task then for pushing European interests in the outside world, and given his renegade views on the European Union it is fairly certain that the next six months will be more about containing the damage his nation’s presidency is liable to cause to EU structures rather than any sort of effective representation of EU interests to the outside world.

(As those ultra-familiar with the EU and its workings might object: There is always the EU commissioner for external relations – currently Benita Ferrero-Waldner, of Austria – available to act as the Union’s “super diplomat” this way, and/or the Council’s “High Representative for Common Foreign and Security Policy,” currently Spain’s Javier Solana. Yes, but these sorts of officials would just not have the same weight in negotiations with the Israelis, the Arab states, the Americans, etc. as an activist head-of-government EU president on the pattern of Nicolas Sarkozy – they are mere bureaucrats and would be regarded as such by the heads-of-government with which they would be asked to deal. No, it’s unfortunately still the case that the EU has to depend on “getting lucky” by having in place an appropriate president/prime minister – “appropriate” not only in attitude and ability to get things done, but also in terms of the reflected size and power of the country s/he comes from – to put out the international fires that flare up. The Lisbon Treaty, by the way, would quite likely solve this whole problem by creating, instead of the six-month revolving national presidencies, the office of an actual, long-standing EU president who would possess the required international prestige by virtue of having been specifically endorsed for the job by the EU Council and Parliament.)

Hezbollah Won’t Intervene

The best estimation for the chances of success of what Berman and Bennema propose, then, is “very small.” Such pessimistic conclusions are only reinforced by another article posted on Trouw at the same time: “Hezbollah cannot afford any attack”, credited only to the (Dutch) Novum news agency. The message here is what it says on the tin: the Lebanon-based Hezbollah, with whom Israel fought a rather messy war in July-August 2006, is really not in a position to react to Israeli actions in the Gaza Strip with anything other than noisy demonstrations, according to comments from Hezbollah insiders. To be sure, this Shiite popular movement is viewed throughout the Arab world as Israel’s most redoubtable opponent and, interestingly, has its own arsenal of rockets of rather greater sophistication – and therefore ability to hit more of Israeli territory – than those currently being fired off by Hamas. But it seems that they don’t dare use them – because of how near-by UN and Lebanese army troops might react, because they cannot be sure that they would again have the support of any other substantial segment of Lebanese popular opinion (who, understandably, don’t want to call down on themselves what the Gazans are currently going through), and of course because of fear over how Israel would react. For if the Israeli have achieved nothing else over the past few days, they have at least made clear their willingness to respond with massive violence to such rocket attacks. And this consideration might be enough, up to this point at least, to make Israeli actions in Gaza a “success” for her despite the considerable anger they have provoked throughout much of the world.

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