One week after the European Commission announced it would block financial aid to Israeli organizations in the occupied territories, Israel retaliated Friday by declaring its plans to block E.U. projects in the West Bank. The move, which will jeopardize European assistance to tens of thousands of Palestinians, follows veiled threats by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had warned that a E.U. sanction “hardens the Palestinian position and leads Israel to lose faith in Europe’s neutrality.” (For good measure, the livid prime minister also compared the ban to the Berlin Wall).
Netanyahu’s gambit may find little support outside of Israel, however. The international community considers Israeli expansion beyond its 1967 borders illegal (as does the United Nations Security Council and the International Court of Justice). In recent years, Europe has resorted to economic pressure to oppose Israel’s land settlement policies. Following Israel’s three-week assault on the Gaza Strip in 2009, several European countries, including Great Britain and Norway, boycotted Israeli goods. Since 2012, the E.U. has been preparing a labeling scheme that would identify products as originating from the occupied territories (vs. “made in Israel”), thereby rendering them ineligible for preferential tariffs. In 2013, individuals and businesses joined the fray by boycotting Israeli academic conferences (i.e., Stephan Hawking’s May boycott), soccer tournaments, and even malls: in late June, McDonald’s refused to open a restaurant in a West Bank shopping center to protest Israeli settlements.
Such methods, however, have met with middling success. The forthcoming European ban may be no different. Despite the breadth of planned sanctions – and local fears that the measures will expand to include companies that have business dealings in the occupied territories — Israeli territorial concessions look like a long shot. (This in spite of promises to the contrary on Thursday by International Relations Minister Yuval Steinitz.) Case in point: some 900 new settlement homes in the West Bank are expected to be approved shortly, as is the construction of a Jerusalem park to be partially built on Palestinian land. And with land at a premium (see Israel’s controversial Bedouin land grab), amid strong domestic support, settlement construction is likely to continue.
Enter Friday’s tit-for-tat move, which, in addition to cooling E.U.-Israel relations, may justify fears that a European ban would derail Middle East peace talks. (News of the E.U. ban coincided with the triumphant announcement by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry on July 19 that Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would soon resume.) Unfortunately for Kerry, Israel’s defiant response to E.U. sanctions hints at the elephant in the room (or better yet spy pigeon): Israel’s West Bank settlements are a major roadblock to peace talks, which could begin as early as July 30. Indeed, the last negotiations stalled for nearly three years over the Palestinian demand for a settlement freeze and Israel’s return to 1967 borders – a position they maintain, despite committing to the U.S.-brokered talks. So despite Kerry’s enthusiasm (and Europe’s attempt at economic diplomacy), a lot of daylight remains between two camps. And, for now at least, Israel is unlikely to budge first.