The New York Times reported on Monday that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has pressured the European Union to lift sanctions against Israeli products and institutions originating in West Bank settlements. Although Kerry’s intentions are good, his strategy is not. If the E.U. succumbs to U.S. pressure, it will undermine the peace process and the prospects for creating a Palestinian state.
Unlike other biased actors (such as the United Nations Human Rights Council) who criticize Israel almost exclusively, the E.U. has shown itself to be a balanced actor in the region. In 2008, Israel and the E.U. announced an upgrade in relations by institutionalizing annual meetings between senior leaders and further integrating Israeli products into the European market. This agreement was signed during intense negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Nevertheless, the E.U. also differentiates between legitimate Israeli actions to protect its citizens and more problematic Israeli behavior that damages the prospects for peace. Therefore, after years of condemning Israeli settlement building in the West Bank—an act considered by many to be in violation of international law—the E.U. finally decided to actively oppose these efforts with tangible consequences. Brussels took a bold risk when announcing that they would boycott Israeli commodities from the Occupied Territories even as America argued that Europe should not be so harsh against Israel. But bold steps like these from the international community are necessary to the creation of a viable Palestinian state.
Kerry is correct when he argues that Israel should be rewarded for initiating final status negotiations with the Palestinians. But America, like the E.U., should reward positive Israeli actions without turning a blind eye to destructive acts that only torpedo the delicate relations between the parties. By threatening to cut financial assistance only to universities in the West Bank, and not to academic institutions inside the Green Line, Brussels sends a powerful message that the E.U. strongly opposes the Israeli Occupation in the West Bank but still supports a closer relationship with institutions within Israel’s internationally recognized border. If the E.U. withdraws the proposed boycott, as Kerry has pressured them to do, then the Netanyahu government will assume that it is permitted or even encouraged to continue building and expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Such a message would be disastrous to the peace process and justifiably push the Palestinians away from the peace table.
Particularly at this important time for America in the Middle East with a possible U.S. strike on Syria without United Nations Security Council backing on the horizon, it is critical that America be viewed as an unbiased party in the region. President Obama still needs to gather additional Arab support for a potential strike. By pressuring the E.U. to limit their tangible condemnation of Israel’s West Bank settlement construction—a position viewed as illegitimate by most in the Middle East—Kerry and the Obama administration are turning away the support in the Arab world that they need now more than ever.
Kerry’s tireless efforts to begin negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority are commendable. But his pressure on the E.U. to rescind their proposed boycott of Israeli institutions in the West Bank is harmful to these same talks. Kerry should heed former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin’s famous quote, “Israel should fight terrorism as if there is no peace process and pursue peace as if there is no terrorism.” Only now, during the Netanyahu term, this comment should be amended slightly: The international community should fight Israeli settlements as if there were no legitimate Israeli terror threats, and support Israel against terrorism as if there were no settlements. Maybe with this nuanced approach to the conflict, the E.U. and other international actors can finally bring peace. The U.S. should not stand in the way.