TCS Daily

The EU's Palestine Problem

By Rory Miller - June 24, 2005 12:00 AM

It is difficult to understand the European Union's refusal, over the last five years, to hold the Palestinian leadership accountable for its terrorism and corruption -- and in particular its willingness to embrace the late Yasir Arafat as a great statesman rather than reject him as an arch-terrorist.

Some point to Europe's long-time indifference to the suffering of Israelis, which in turn has been attributed to a visceral anti-Israeli feeling within Europe due to guilt over the Holocaust and a belief that Israel is the last bastion of colonialism in the Middle East. Some go even further and blame anti-Semitism.

Others explain the European stance as an inevitable function of Europe's post-1945 world-view, which places a premium on negotiation and non-confrontation as well as a commitment to finding economic solutions to political problems. Still others attribute the European position to the fact that the EU, the largest financial donor to the Palestinian Authority since its creation, simply cannot bring itself to acknowledge the PA's failings.

But there is another possible explanation, which goes something like this: Despite its long-time public support for Palestinian statehood the EU is secretly committed to preventing the establishment of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state. As part of this policy, it has turned a blind eye, and even excused, the worst excesses of the Palestinian leadership, knowing full well that in doing so it has not only diluted US efforts to stem Palestinian rejectionism, but has actually prolonged the conflict. It gives the Palestinian leadership little incentive to moderate its positions or meet its formal commitments.

As Benjamin Netanyahu put it during his time as Israeli prime minister in 1997, the Palestinian belief that Europe would "always line up behind all of their demands and violations and will overlook the facts" had led to the impasse in the peace process. During the Oslo era (between 1994 and 2000) European politicians completely ignored Arafat's failure to "take all measures necessary in order to prevent acts of terrorism". Why? This, after all, was precisely what he was obliged to do under the terms of both the Gaza-Jericho Agreement of 1994 and the Declaration of Principles (Oslo II) of 1995. And if he had done so, he would have gained his state.

Following the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the outbreak of the al Aqsa intifada in September 2000, until Arafat's death last November, the EU's determination to ignore the anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish slanders in the PA-controlled media, its half-hearted efforts to push Arafat to reign in Hamas and Islamic Jihad, and its refusal to acknowledge the very real links between Fatah (the dominant constituent group within the PLO) and the Al Aqsa martyrs brigade have also prolonged Palestinian statelessness.

Europe's refusal to hold the Palestinians accountable for their failings, which has only hurt Palestinian interests, can be traced back to the 1970s. In 1975, the US signed an agreement with Israel promising not to meet with, or recognize, the PLO until it renounced terrorism and accepted UN Security Council Resolution 242 of 1967 and Resolution 338 of 1973 as the basis for a negotiated settlement of the conflict. But during the same period the EU never adopted a similar policy of exclusion. In fact, the PLO's leading role in international terror and its rejection of the Camp David peace agreement between Israel and Egypt has coincided with the growing acceptance of the organization within Europe.

Indeed, in 1979, the same year that the PLO denounced Camp David as "a wholly retrograde move", Arafat met with Austrian Chancellor Bruno Kreisky and Germany's Willy Brandt at the time chairman of the Socialist International, in Vienna. He also met the Spanish prime minister and the president, prime minister and foreign minister of Portugal.

Such visits, honors and statements were rightly interpreted as evidence of what the New York Times then termed the PLO's "important diplomatic gains in Western Europe." They were also significant because they underlined the fact that the PLO could consolidate, and even expand, its position in Europe without altering its original objective (the destruction of Israel) or its modus operandi (terrorism).

As Israeli Labor party leader Shimon Peres pointed out at the time of Arafat's meeting in Vienna: "the PLO gained in status not because it changed, but because Kreisky and Brandt are hopeful that it will change". Indeed, in March 1980, Austria extended full recognition to the PLO, without the body having renounced terrorism or accepted Israel's right to exist. Thus at a time when Andrew Young, America's UN ambassador, was being reprimanded (he subsequently resigned) for holding an unauthorized meeting with a PLO representative, there was widespread speculation over which European state would be the first to receive Arafat on an official visit.

The Community's Venice declaration on 13 June 1980, which, among other things, called for the PLO to be "associated with" future negotiations, was announced just weeks after Fatah had reiterated its objective of liquidating Israel. Thus pushing Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to warn Europeans not to adopt the PLO as a partner based on "smiles, promises and hopes" at the expense of ignoring the real PLO.

The opposition Labor party was equally forthright, with veteran statesman Abba Eban making the same point when he criticized Venice for giving the PLO access to the peace process without extracting any "ideological or rhetorical concessions" in return.

Speaking to a group of European Socialists in Vienna in 1985 (in the wake of Italian Prime Minister Bettino Craxi's visit to Arafat in Tunis-the first meeting by a major western head of state and the PLO leader), Shimon Peres attacked Europe's "obsequious attitude towards the PLO" and called on the continent's leaders to see their "great mistake" and "to cease closing their eyes...and to refrain from an attitude of forgiveness" towards the PLO.

Given this history of appeasement it is not surprising that many EU governments not only opposed Israel's policy of isolating and marginalizing Arafat in his Ramallah compound between 2002 and 2004 but insisted that the Palestinian leader was Israel's "only valid interlocutor". Nor is it a surprise that the EU, which for the most part adheres to the view that the current US administration is nothing more than a "callow instrument" of pro-Israeli neo-conservative ideologues, condemned both President Bush's June 2002 statement calling on Arafat to give up political power and his refusal to meet Arafat during the last three years of his life.

But, in truth, the Bush Administration's decision to link Arafat's political demise to an advance towards a final peace settlement has contributed far more to the birth of a future Palestinian state than almost any aspect of Europe's hopelessly flawed and counterproductive Palestine policy over the last thirty years.

During their White House meeting in May, President Bush made it clear to Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), Arafat's successor as PA president, that the US would support the establishment of a Palestinian state only if, and when, it made a definitive commitment to democracy and fully cracked down on terrorism. Because of the administration's consistency on this issue over the last four years, this will be a message that the Palestinians, as well as the wider Arab world, will hear loud and clear.

If the EU does not wish to prolong Palestinian statelessness and is serious about making a positive contribution to Israeli-Palestinian peace and the establishment of a Palestinian state in the post-Arafat era, it should adopt an approach similar to the Bush Administration's. By starting to hold the Palestinian leadership accountable for its failings it would be doing the Palestinian people a big favor.

Rory Miller is Senior Lecturer in Mediterranean Studies at King's College London and the author, most recently, of Ireland and the Palestine Question, 1948-2004.


TCS Daily Archives