How the #UN became a EU stumbling block in the Middle East

| October 6, 2017 | 0 Comments

When the two main Palestinian political parties, Hamas and Fatah, met on Monday for the first time in three years, the EU issued a statement commending the move as an “important and positive signal” that all parties involved in the reconciliation process are willing to “engage in good faith”. While the EU noted the need for a fundamental change in the political situation, it also acknowledged Israel’s legitimate security concerns – writes Colin Stevens

Unsurprisingly, the statement was criticized in Israel, but that only serves to prove a vital point: Europe has much more influence over peace in the Middle East than many realize. And with a bungling president in the White House, Brussels’ role will only grow in the years to come.

Indeed, the EU has great ‘normative power’ to shape solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Never was this more true than in 2011, when Palestinians attempted to seek recognition at the UN for a Palestinian state. In the run up to the vote, both Palestinians and Israelis made clear that how EU states reacted to the bid was the litmus test for how the world viewed the tension between the two embattled entities. One Israeli official even told the International Crisis Group that ‘Europe is vital because Europe is the key to international legitimacy. The US is the key to the effective exercise of power, but the US cannot confer legitimacy. The Europeans alone can do that.’ The bid ultimately failed in part due to European member states’ division over the matter.

Another commentator, Florence Gaub, a senior analyst at the European Union Institute for Security Studies (EUISS), likens Europe to the tortoise who eventually outruns the hare in the popular fable. Although the EU is often criticized for acting slowly on the international stage, its ideas and ideals have lasting impact. For example, the two-state solution, first put forward by Europe in 1980, was once shocking, yet it has gradually crept into diplomatic consciousness as the only viable way of both peoples enjoying a peaceful future. No other concept for the region has gained as much traction since.

However, in recent years the EU’s effectiveness in the region is increasingly undermined, and by much more than just Israel’s expanding settlement policy. The growing power of Hezbollah in Lebanon is stoking fears of another war and prompting the Israeli Defence Forces to carry out their largest exercise in 20 years in anticipation of borders being breached. And this is partially down to the ineffectiveness of the UN.

Hezbollah’s growing power has been facilitated by the failures of the UN peacekeeping mission in Lebanon (UNIFIL). The mission has become a bone of contention between the US, Israel and, in the opposing corner, Europe. While the former two countries have argued that UNIFIL needs greater powers to dampen Hezbollah’s influence and stop ‘giving terrorists a pass’, the EU towed France’s line in objecting to UNIFIL’s powers in the area being strengthened. It was argued that authorizing UNIFIL soldiers to inspect private homes would be a breach of Lebanon’s sovereignty. Ironically, European powers are erecting stumbling blocks to UNIFIL’s attempts to keep threats to the peace in check, even though EU members are key to the UNIFIL mission.

The UN has also unnecessarily further provoked tension in the region through its seemingly benign heritage arm, the Paris-based UNESCO. In July 2017, UNESCO declared the Old City of Hebron in the occupied West Bank an endangered – and, crucially, Palestinian – World Heritage Site. Israel reacted with fury, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calling the vote “another delusional decision by UNESCO.” The US ambassador to the UN too poured opprobrium on the decision saying that the pronouncement was an “affront to history” that further discredits an already “highly questionable” UN agency.

With many key players across the world questioning the UN’s short-sightedness, it is hoped that the upcoming Director-General Elections could be a chance to depoliticize UNESCO. That’s the ideal, but there is a real risk that if elected, some candidates could actually make things worse.

One of the frontrunners, Lebanon’s Vera Khoury, would not only risk provoking Israel’s fury by simply being Lebanese. But given the fact that Hezbollah is part of Lebanon’s governing coalition, there is also the risk that she could find herself under domestic pressure to champion decisions that could add further fuel to the flames. A former representative of the Caribbean island nation of Santa Lucia at UNESCO, Khoury has been working with the organization for the better part of 20 years, making her an unlikely figure to lead UNESCO out of its rut.

EU member states need to be mindful that they have a considerable stake in supporting bodies like UNIFIL become more effective. It is also in their interest that UNESCO elects leadership that is not prone to making blundering decisions, which pay no heed to current political contexts. For reduced tensions on the Israel-Lebanon border and within the UN itself are both vital to saving the peace process.

Europe is a key influence in both these things, but at the moment, the left hand seems to be undermining what the right hand is doing. As long as bad decisions by UN institutions keep on undermining European efforts to keep the mediation process alive, the EU will not be able to fully unleash its power to shape policy debates. Member states are a major part of UN institutions, so it is not beyond their ken to prevent these calamities from taking place. It is about time they start acting on it.

 

 

 

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Category: A Frontpage, EU, European Commission, Hamas, Israel, Israeli Arabs, Palestinian Authority (PA), Politics, West Bank, World