The start of the ceasefire is a very welcome step. It follows the calls by the UN Secretary General, the US President and 26 out of 27 EU member states. It should end the horrible cycle of violence we have seen that started with clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli police in East Jerusalem. The violence has left well over 200 dead in Gaza and the West Bank, including many women and children, and at least 10 dead in Israel, plus thousands injured. The task now is to use this opportunity to build a genuine peace between Israelis and Palestinians.
As European Union, we are deeply affected by the conflict, not least because of our historic and extensive links to Israel and Palestine. I have been very active throughout this crisis in reaching out to all the protagonists, to try to de-escalate tensions and promote the ceasefire.
Given the urgency of the situation, I convened an extraordinary video-conference of EU Foreign Ministers on 18 May. While we should acknowledge that there are nuances in the positions of member states – and any differences tend to get media attention - there was a wide common understanding shared by 26 out of 27 member states
Being an informal meeting, there were no written conclusions. But my main take away of this general agreement, as I explained to the press, was on the urgent need to end the crisis through a ceasefire – which we now have – but also that it should be fully implemented. We also stressed the need for humanitarian access; we strongly condemned the rocket attacks by Hamas and other terrorist groups into Israel; we acknowledged Israel’s right to self-defence, while needing to respect proportionality and respect for international humanitarian law; we regretted the unacceptable loss of lives, especially of women and children; in line with the European Union’s long-standing positions on settlements, we recalled the importance of not proceeding with evictions in Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem; and finally we called for respecting the status of Holy sites and guaranteeing the right to worship. All this remains relevant.
However, the most important point that Ministers discussed is that we need to not just end this wave of violence in a ‘crisis management mode’, but actually solve the underlying conflict. Because in the end, real security for Israel and Palestine can only come through real peace and a true political and negotiated solution. It is precisely the absence of any progress towards the two-state solution, which the international community has long supported, that ultimately created the latest upsurge in violence.
With the relative calm since 2014 and the agreements that Israel reached with various Arab countries in recent years, the so called “Abraham agreements” brokered by the Trump administration, some in Israel may have had the feeling that the Palestinian question had been settled and that the status quo could continue indefinitely. And certainly some argued that the Arab-Israeli conflict was reaching an end. But this did nothing about the Israel-Palestinian conflict, which remains the core of the problem. As my friend Shlomo Ben Ami has written the Abraham accords created the impression that the Palestinian cause was dead, removed from the international stage. Years before, Simon Peres, another friend of mine, said that he could not have imagined Russian and China embassies to Israel. He would be still more surprised at the current level of international recognition.
We have seen years of “peace process negotiations” which, however, have not solved the conflict, nor halted the expansion of settlements on Palestinian territory that in practical terms are undermining the solution that the international community backs. In this context, a strategy of “maximum security” seemed to work and allow some to claim that the Palestinian problem was over. But the clashes of the last few weeks, including tensions that have emerged inside Israel itself, show that this is not the case. Indeed, the crisis demonstrates that the status quo is not sustainable and that there is no alternative to a negotiated peace, accepted by all parties.
Now that there is a truce in place, some might be tempted to ‘move on’ and leave aside the underlying causes of the conflict. This would most likely lead to new cycles of violence that will only further strengthen extremists. There is an important difference between a short-term form of security delivered mainly through military and technological means, and a sustainable peace, emanating from an agreement. Enforcing security without underlying peace comes at too high a price and is anyway unsustainable.
Walls and other forms of separation will never be high enough. In the end, you can only be prosperous and secure if your neighbour is prosperous and secure too. As Yitzhak Rabin used to say: “You don’t make peace with your friends, but with your enemies.”
That is why we must do all we can to find that narrow political pathway: to return to meaningful negotiations for a two-state solution, based on the internationally agreed parameters. It is the only way to ensure the rights and the security of both Israelis and Palestinians. We will need many steps and perseverance to get there, including Palestinian elections and agreed ways to end the isolation of Gaza.
This year we will be marking the 30th anniversary of the Madrid Peace conference that launched the process leading to the Oslo agreements. It will be a good occasion to ‘re-internationalise’ the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Perhaps it doesn’t have the same strategic central role it had in the past. However, that is not a reason for us Europeans to forget about it and wait for a new tragedy.
It is true that we have said all this many times before. Indeed, this conflict has for decades defied international efforts at peace making. So we have to prove the sceptics wrong and engage in a very concrete way to help bring about this negotiated solution.
We cannot afford the stalemate we have had for years. The EU cannot be expected to finance yet again the re-building of Gaza without a meaningful prospect of actually solving the underlying conflict. Of course, there are many reasons to doubt that ‘this time will be different’. But we have a duty to try. Because sticking to the current path will certainly mean more cycles of violence.
That is why I will do all I can to try to re-open the space for negotiations and develop confidence building measures. I am in touch with the key actors from Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, the US etc. So too is the EU Special Representative Sven Koopmans who will soon travel to the region. Equally, we are working to revive the Middle East Quartet (US, UN, Russia and EU). Last but not least, we must try to build as much unity as possible among the EU member states.