I wrote a blog last Monday calling on the European Union and Egypt to try and revive peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
I received a lot of responses. Nearly all of them were critical and pessimistic. The consensus was that Europe could not broker any deal. Peace in the Middle East is, as ever, up to the Americans.
Maybe the respondents are right. But I still believe that Europe should stop waiting for the U.S. administration and begin to think out of the box. The question is how.
Here are some of my ideas:
A crucial first step is that the EU overcomes its prejudices about Islamic movements coming to power in some Middle Easter countries.
In particular, Europe needs to work very closely with Egypt’s President Mohamed Morsi. Egypt is one of the most important countries in the region and crucial to the region’s stability.
Under Hosni Mubarak, Egypt lost its status as a regional player. It was too often identified with American and Israeli interests when it came to dealing with the “peace process”. The priority was security and stability, whatever the costs.
Morsi seems to take security and stability very seriously, too, but he has changed the parameters of Egyptian policy.
His handling of the Sinai incursion, for example, gave him the chance to sack some of the top military officers who had been trying to hold onto power. It was his way of trying to establish his authority. It also showed that he is no Islamist radical himself.
That is why the Europeans might find Morsi a valuable partner for bringing Israelis and Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Europe should start by designating a top diplomat (Who? Now that’s an interesting next question) to team up with the Egyptian president.
Before approaching Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, Morsi and his European colleague should agree on their approach to a number of issues. That could be a fascinating exercise in and of itself.
Without second-guessing any ideas that Egypt might contribute, some elements of such a common strategy are fairly obvious.
First, the EU and Egypt need to find a common stance on dealing with the Hamas movement that runs Gaza. Europe will need talk to Hamas, even if Israel is going to balk at that. But Gaza is a place waiting to explode. What will that do to Israel’s security? And for that matter Egypt’s?
Second, Morsi and the Europeans then need to go on to Ramallah and apply as much pressure as possible on Palestinian president Mohammad Abbas and Fayyad to reconcile Fatah and Hamas. The Europeans have been shamefully absent from helping to bridge this gap.
A reconciliation, however difficult, would hopefully allow the Palestinians to speak with one voice about any future peace deal. Inevitably, Hamas will have to recognize Israel’s right to exist. The right of return of all Palestinians to their homeland will have to be dropped.
Third, the Europeans and Morsi should insist that the Palestinian Authority (PA) hold free and fair elections. And soon. Egyptian election monitors should be invited. For far too long the PA, or rather Fatah has held onto power at the expense of genuine accountability. Fatah is becoming an anachronism in the region.
Fourth, in Gaza, the tunnels should be closed. They have created a highly insidious system of patronage and corruption with regard to those suppliers that are allowed to use the tunnels. That has to end.
In their place, the Europeans and Egyptians could think about establishing, according to international standards, a proper border crossing between Gaza and Egypt. The Europeans have already had some experience there.
But now, they should invest heavily in this, providing personnel and equipment. After all, the EU has had plenty of experience in upgrading border crossings between EU and non-EU frontiers. Europe and the Egyptians could work on one side. On the Gaza side, the Europeans should play a similar role. That is another reason why the EU has to start working with Hamas, which is just as important as the reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.
Of course, several EU member states will try and prevent any recognition of Hamas by the Union. But to my mind, there really is no alternative. We have to move on if we want to make peace happen.
Which brings us to Israel.
Morsi and the Europeans have to ask Netanyahu if he genuinely wants a two-state solution. If he says yes, he has two options to bring that about. He puts it to a referendum to see if he has a mandate. Or he spells out, independently of a referendum, what a two-state solution should look like on the ground.
Obviously, this would mean having a viable Palestinian state with secure and demarcated borders. And having an Israel with demarcated and secure borders as well.
Secure borders means tackling the settlement issue. Israel has to choose. If it wants a two-state solution, it is not going to achieve it by holding on to large chunks of the West Bank.
The settlements negate the entire idea of a two-state solution and are as anachronistic as Fatah. They also negate the idea of secure borders for both sides. How can Israel and Palestine have secure borders when there are exclaves in Palestine?
In short, there is no way around resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict without tackling the settlements.
Morsi and the Europeans have to come up with some ideas. Maybe they should return to the Clinton plan that tentatively envisaged a land swap whereby the Gaza Strip would be linked to the West Bank via land along the south of the Negev desert in return for Israel holding onto to some of the settlements near Jerusalem. I recall when Ehud Barak was prime minister seeing the plans for special roads linking the Gaza Strip with the West Bank.
As for Jerusalem, Morsi and the Europeans also have to decide how best to stop the expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem.
Already this part of the city is cut off from parts of the West Bank, aimed of course at preventing the Palestinians ever establishing this part of the city as their capital. But if Israel says it wants an open city, then severing it from the West Bank is counterproductive.
If all of this is agreed—I have no illusions—Egypt should sweeten the deal with a renewal of its commitment to the 1973 peace deal with Israel. That means protecting its side of the Sinai border. The Europeans, if Morsi asks, will provide additional security measures. Such reassurance would be very important for Israel as much as encouraging trust between Israel and Egypt.
Europe, in turn, would open the door to further economic help for Palestine and a new level of cooperation with Israel.
Finally, it will then be time to turn to the United States to ask for something that only it can provide: a security guarantee for the two new states living side by side. The two Es should go for it. Time is not on their side. There is no guarantee of success. But shouldn’t Europe, with Egypt, have the courage and imagination to take such a risk?