The Israeli-Palestinian conflict risks deteriorating further amidst the upheaval in the Arab world and Palestinian efforts to gain recognition at the UN. But one glimmer of hope has emerged. On May 4th, the rival Palestinian factions agreed to create a caretaker government and to hold elections across the West Bank and Gaza within 12 months. By ending over four years of divisions, the Palestinians have eliminated one of the major obstacles to peace with Israel. However, the US and Israel continue to cling to their old policy of isolating Hamas, which they consider a terrorist organisation. The trouble is that the group is one of the two largest Palestinian factions. If a lasting peace agreement is to be reached, the EU needs to convince its partners to change their stance.
Time is not on Israel’s side. The revolutionary fervour which has overtaken much of the Arab world is spreading to the occupied territories. On May 15th, thousands of Palestinian protestors clashed with Israeli forces in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza, while hundreds attempted to enter Israel from Syria and Lebanon. The embattled Assad regime – which allowed Palestinians to breach the Israeli-Syrian border – is exploiting the conflict to discourage the international community from calling for its demise. There is significant uncertainty about the makeup of the next government in Egypt – hitherto a key ally of Israel. And violent militant groups opposed to Israel are likely to benefit from any power vacuums created by the political turmoil across the region.
What is more, in September the Palestinians want to ask the UN to recognise a state of Palestine even though a peace agreement has not been reached with Israel. If the motion succeeded, Israel would be required by international law to withdraw its troops from the Palestinian territories. It would also lose the right to govern its many settlements. If the Palestinians failed at the UN, the disappointment could feed the nascent popular protests.
The international community can prevent a further deterioration of the conflict. Since 2007, when Hamas took sole control of Gaza, Israel and much of the international community have worked only with President Mahmoud Abbas, the Fatah leader who has run the West Bank. Israel, the US and others hoped that better living conditions in the West Bank and the prospect of peace negotiated between Abbas and Israel would undermine Hamas’ popular support. But the policy has failed. With Abbas incapable of speaking on behalf of all Palestinians, Israel has had no incentives to make costly concessions in peace talks. In addition, the isolation of Gaza has destroyed the local economy, radicalised many Palestinians and left government institutions in limbo.
Over the years, although EU member-states have continued to perceive Hamas as an unsavoury interlocutor, they have realised that a lasting peace settlement can only be achieved if it is negotiated by a united Palestinian government. So the EU has softened the conditions for engaging Hamas, insisting only that it relinquishes the use of force. On this basis, the EU welcomed the formation of a Palestinian unity government in May, and stressed the need for an urgent return to peace talks. But Israel and the US remain unwilling to negotiate with a government backed by Hamas. On the contrary, Israeli authorities are threatening to withhold Palestinian tax revenue to starve the interim government of funds. And President Barack Obama has described the unity government as "an enormous obstacle to peace".
The EU’s diplomatic leverage in the Arab-Israeli conflict has always been limited. Moreover, the current Israeli coalition – which includes parties opposed to several aspects of the peace process – will be particularly hard to sway. Nevertheless, the EU should do its utmost to convince the US and Israel to launch talks with the interim Palestinian government aimed at reaching a final agreement before the Palestinian elections – on condition that Hamas refrain from violence. The peace initiative would be something of a gamble, particularly as the fragile unity government could collapse. But serious peace talks could dissuade the Palestinians from asking the UN for recognition. In addition, successful talks would strengthen the chances of bipartisan support for peace when Hamas and Fatah campaigned for re-election. In a recent speech on the Arab spring, Barack Obama argued that the current uprisings increased the need for a peaceful settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the US President failed to offer a plan to achieve such a settlement. The Europeans can help him fill that void.