The EU is working to build its credentials as a Middle East power broker, but its efforts are complicated by internal divisions over Palestinian plans to seek UN recognition of a Palestinian state.
The paralysis in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has encouraged EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton to try to play more of a leading role in the absence of any initiative by Washington.
The British diplomat has tried to reactivate the Middle East Quartet as a negotiating body and has emphasized the EU’s ability to be more flexible than US mediators when it comes to persuading the two sides to resume peace talks.
Europe’s leverage in the region is limited, its aid to the Palestinians far outweighed by Washington’s economic and military support for Israel, but Ashton’s long-term aim is to position Europe as the more adaptable mediator.
Her big challenge is persuading Israel to take the EU seriously as a lead mediator. However, the outlook is so poor that this may be the best time for an EU push, many observers say.
“The EU has historically played second fiddle because the two main actors, the Palestinians and the Israelis, made it their priority to court the Americans,” said Robert Blecher of the International Crisis Group.
“That made it more difficult for the EU to get involved, but there is growing Palestinian disenchantment with the US that opens the door to Europe. What the Europeans have to bring to the table is that they are not the United States,” Blecher said.
Ashton still has to convince Israel the EU is a balanced broker: Its close ties with the Palestinians are an obstacle in the eyes of the Israelis.
Between EU institutions and member states, Europe is the biggest aid donor to the Palestinians, providing about 1 billion euros (US$1.41 billion) annually between 2007 and last year, and participating closely in Palestinian state-building efforts.
However, Israel receives about US$3 billion a year in military and other aid from Washington, its closest ally, a total of about US$100 billion in about four decades.
In the short term, Ashton’s hopes may be dashed if West Bank Palestinian leaders go ahead with a plan to request a vote on statehood at the next UN General Assembly gathering.
The plan, opposed by Israel and Washington and dismissed as hot air by Hamas, would complicate efforts to revive peace talks and expose gaping policy differences among EU states — undermining Ashton’s drive to strengthen the EU’s voice abroad.
Forced to choose at the UN General Assembly, the 27 EU states may split into two camps. Outright backing for Palestinian statehood by big EU powers such as France could also antagonize Israel.
“The Quartet is a way for Ashton to head off embarrassment at having the veil pulled away from her attempt to forge a common foreign policy,” Blecher said.
A return to peace negotiations — overseen for decades by Washington — looks most unlikely, the Palestinian leadership refusing to budge until Israel freezes housing construction in the occupied West Bank, which it refuses to do.
However, observers say the EU may have fewer domestic policy constraints than Washington in formulating a position, giving it more room for maneuver in trying to push the two sides closer.
US President Barack Obama has had rocky relations with Israel since taking office, partly because of his push against settlements, and he can do little to pressure Israel because of criticism from the Republican-controlled US Congress.