How Europe can become a player in the Middle East

From an Austrian Member of Parliament: The EU could play a supporting role – recognizing Israeli concerns, and encouraging Palestinian compromise

Regarding the Middle East, the EU has so far played the role of the two old men in the “Muppet Show”: observing the course of events from the box and bitching about it. The Europeans could do well as mediators though.

The United States presented the Trump Peace Plan a few months ago to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The new Israeli government under Prime Minister Netanyahu is preparing to extend Israeli sovereignty to parts of the West Bank based on this plan. In these developments, the European Union have so far only been grumpy bystanders. But Europe could become a player in the Middle East again. Here’s how.

First, a sober inventory should be taken: the Middle East is and remains an immediate neighborhood region of Europe. Events there can quickly have an impact on Europe — see the refugee crisis of 2015. Therefore we cannot be indifferent to what is happening there.

Second, the EU has not made a constructive contribution to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for many years. The engagement usually ends with a condemnation of Israel. Financial support for the Palestinians to maintain the — actually undesirable — status quo continues. What remains is the ritualized lip service to a (not defined) two-state solution.

Third, it should also be noted in the EU that the status of the West Bank under international law is not that clear. The last legal sovereign was Britain. When the United Kingdom ended the League of Nations’ mandate in 1948, Jordan occupied the West Bank, without any legal claim, and held it until the Six Day War in 1967 without establishing a Palestinian state there.

The pioneering UN Security Council Resolution 242 adopted after the 1967 arms movement, laid down two things: Every State (note: specifically Israel was meant) had the right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats and acts of force. And furthermore, Israel had to withdraw from territories occupied in the recent conflict.

It is of critical importance here that the wording deliberately chosen was the indefinite designation “from territories” and not “from the territories.” This left open which parts of the West Bank Israel would have to withdraw from, especially with regard to the establishment of secure borders. And the pre-1967 armistice lines were certainly not such safe limits.

This is exactly what the narrative of Israel is based on, that in the case of the West Bank they are “disputed territories.” The US government recently joined this position.

Fourth, it is about an effective negotiation strategy. The Austrian courts could serve as an excellent example: Here, judges and mediators are more and more successful in bringing the parties to the dispute to a reasonable compromise. The recipe? They make it very clear to both parties that the issue is not black and white, that the outcome will ultimately always be an arrangement, but by then the two parties will have lost so much time, energy and money that it makes a lot more sense to find a compromise right now. It’s amazing to see how well this works.

What happens now in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? The United States and, finally, some Arab countries are increasingly making it clear to the Palestinians that sticking to maximal demands (such as receiving the entire West Bank, dividing Jerusalem, retaining the right of return for refugees, including those who have not lived in Israel for generations, etc.) doesn’t bring the Palestinians a step closer to a solution. Rather, the Palestinians would have to return to the negotiating table with Israel which they left in 2010.

However, some EU countries such as France, Belgium, Sweden, Ireland etc. do exactly the opposite: metaphorically speaking, they threaten and sanction one party to the dispute (Israel) again and again, while constantly assuring the other party to the dispute (the Palestinians) that their claim is justified. And they also support the latter politically and financially so that they just don’t give up their narrative.

Fifth, the EU can therefore only play a role in the Middle East if it does not leave Israel policy in the hands of notorious critics of Israel such as the EU’s foreign minister Josep Borrell. Its predecessor, Federica Mogherini was not even received in Israel, and Borrell will probably be no different.

Some European countries such as the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, Latvia as well as Austria are breaking new ground. With a greater understanding of Israel’s difficult security situation and willingness to signal to the Palestinians that they too must be willing to compromise. With the clear message — as with the Austrian courts — that time is not on their side.

The Palestinians never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, former Israeli Foreign Minister Abba Eban said many years ago. It was exactly 100 years ago that the Sévres Treaty provided for an autonomous state for the Kurds. Today hardly anyone knows that, and the Kurds are now considered one of the largest peoples without their own nation-state.

If the Palestinians are not to suffer the same fate as the Kurds, then there could be another historical chance of obtaining one at the negotiating table. Of course, involving a cut in their previous expectations.

This is exactly where the Europeans could support the Palestinians and thus play a supporting role in the Middle East. This is certainly not possible with threats and sanctions against Israel, but rather by demanding the principle of reality, understanding the narratives of both sides, pushing for a willingness to compromise and last but not least: the promise to Israel and the emerging Palestinian state structure that they both can expect generous economic support from the EU and maximum integration into Europe.

This could form a viable bridge from Europe to the Middle East, which could become an alliance for peace, freedom and prosperity.

The Op-Ed was written by  Austrian MP, Martin Engelberg and was published in The Times of Israel


Netanyahu to meet Austrian chancellor, attend anti-Semitism conference in Vienna

During his visit to Israel this summer, Kurz expressed remorse for Austrian participation in Nazi crimes

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to fly to Vienna later this month to meet with Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, in what will be the first official visit to Austria by an Israeli premier in more than two decades.

“It is my distinct pleasure to welcome Prime Minister Netanyahu for an official visit to Austria!,” Kurz tweeted Wednesday.

Netanyahu will hold a bilateral meeting with the Austrian leader and attend a “conference on the fight against anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism” hosted by Kurz on November 21-22.

Netanyahu’s forthcoming visit to Vienna will be the first trip to Austria by an Israeli prime minister since 1997, when Netanyahu visited the country during his first term.

Member of parliament Martin Engelberg, a member of Chancellor Sebastian Kurz’s center-right Austrian People’s Party (OVP), announced the Israeli premier’s planned visit earlier Wednesday during a pan-European conference on anti-Semitism in Brussels.

“[Netanyahu] is going to come to Vienna in two weeks, and there will be a summit, a quite high-ranking summit…on fighting anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, also including BDS [the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement] and protecting and securing Jewish life in Austria and in Europe,” Engelberg told i24NEWS.

Ties between Israel and Austria have strengthened over the past year, despite the inclusion in Kurz’s coalition government of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), which has a past stained by frequent anti-Semitic incidents and instances of Nazi propaganda.

Israel’s foreign ministry has maintained a “boycott” of the Freedom Party ministers, who preside over the foreign and defense ministries, since they joined Kurz’s government late last year government, instead conducting all governmental matters through lower-level civil servants.

But it appears the Israeli government is eager to maintain good relations with Austria, as the reaction paled in comparison with that in 2000, when the Freedom Party first joined a coalition government and Israeli authorities withdrew the Ambassador from Vienna.

The Austrian chancellor visited Israel in June and met with Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in September.

“It’s a very clear sign of the close friendship not only between Israel and Austria, but also on a personal level between the Israeli prime minister and our Austrian chancellor,” Engelberg said of Netanyahu’s planned reciprocal visit.

Engelberg told i24NEWS that it was the “right” of the Jewish community to decide to boycott ministers of the far-right Freedom Party (FPOe), but noted that nonetheless, “the relationship between Austria and Israel has never been as close as it is now.”

He added that “nobody is pressing” Israel to change its policy regarding FPO ministers.

“Austria is a member of the European Union…and whether or not the Israeli government has contact with Austrian ministers of the Freedom Party does not really bother us,” he said.

“I’m more interested that the Freedom Party really takes the right steps and we will charge them by their deeds, as we say,” Engelberg said.

During his visit to Israel this summer, Kurz expressed remorse at the American Jewish Committee’s conference in Jerusalem for Austrian participation in Nazi crimes during the Holocaust.

Engelberg said that over the past 30 years there has been a “strong decline” in what he called “classical anti-Semitism” in Austria, meanwhile claiming that levels of anti-Semitism in the country’s Muslim population were much higher than in the general population.

“We are talking about, according to the polls, a level of anti-Semitism [within the Muslim population] of 40, 50, or 60 percent sometimes, whereas in the general population we tend to come down from 30 percent to 10 percent,” he said, without citing from which polls he had drawn the figures.

Founded in 1956, the FPOe emerged from the short-lived Federation of Independents, launched after World War II by former Nazis who had been stripped of their voting rights.

The party, whose first chief was an ex-officer from the Waffen SS, also drew pan-Germanists — believers in unifying with Germany like in the Third Reich — and liberals fed up with the ruling centrist establishment.

The party rose to prominence in the late 1980’s under Joerg Haider, the charismatic but controversial son of a former Nazi party official, positioning itself as a formidable populist force thriving on xenophobic and anti-EU slogans.

Today, the part is led by Heinz-Christian Strache, a former member of a radical student fraternity who has a past stained by frequent anti-Semitic incidents and instances of Nazi propaganda.

Strache has dismissed former associations with neo-Nazi groups as youthful dalliance and has attempted to position himself as a vocal advocate and friend of Israel.

Strache has traveled to Israel a number of times and developed ties with representatives of the Israeli right. In one of his last trips, however, late Israeli President Shimon Peres had refused to meet him.

i24NEWS correspondent Polina Garaev contributed to this report.

The article was published on I24