Why EU’s €18m for Israel undermines peace

EUobserver.com, 4 December 2023

By Martin Konecny

In the face of horrendous Israeli-Palestinian violence, European leaders have revived calls for a two-state solution to stop the cycle of bloodshed. Yet at the same time, the European Union is about to throw money on Israel’s regional strategy aiming to do the opposite: circumvent the Palestinian issue and avoid a territorial compromise.

Initiated by the Hungarian EU commissioner Olivér Várhelyi, the European Commission on Tuesday (28 November) approved an €18m funding plan entitled “Regional EU-Israel cooperation in support of the Abraham Accords, and fight against antisemitism and fostering Jewish life”.

The optics of a nine-fold increase of annual funding for Israel, expedited in the middle of its devastating military campaign in Gaza, stand out in contrast with the attempted suspension, delaying and constraining of EU development aid for the Palestinians under the same commissioner.

What is most questionable, however, is the focus of the new EU funding plan.

The Abraham Accords, the plan’s first priority, are a set of agreements normalising relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and partially Sudan, brokered by the Trump administration in 2020.

Crucially, the Accords abandoned the requirement to end Israel’s occupation and establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza — a precondition that Arab countries had insisted upon until then.

Since the first normalisation deal with the UAE, Israeli prime minister Netanyahu has been extremely clear about Israel’s strategy with the accords: to replace the “land for peace” doctrine with one of “peace for peace” and “peace through strength”, under which “Israel is not required to withdraw from any territory”.

Indeed, since the accords’ signing, Israel continued to expand its illegal settlements in the West Bank at an accelerating pace and to advance its de facto annexation of the territory, rendering the two-state solution ever more impossible.

Yet, in a familiar pattern, Israel’s closest allies in the United States and Europe pretended not to hear or see what the Israeli leaders were openly saying and visibly doing, and instead hailed the Accords as a boon for regional peace.

Discordant accords

The Biden administration centred its regional policy on promoting further expansion of the accords, notably with Saudi Arabia, while leaving the Palestinian issue to fester.

The Palestinians were left with no political horizon, prospects or options, with the implicit assumption that they would accept Israel’s domination on a permanent basis. Far from facilitating peace, this approach helped create the conditions for an explosion of violence, which came with a shocking level of Hamas’ brutality on 7 October.

As EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell aptly noted, “Because of the Abraham Accords, many believed that the Israeli-Palestinian issue could be circumvented even as the situation on the ground continued to deteriorate. This illusion has contributed to the fire of hatred.”

And yet, Brussels is now doubling down on this approach.

Yes, the Abraham Accords are a reality, which the EU must contend with. But why subsidise Israel and the UAE — countries with a higher GDP per capita than the EU — to enhance their already booming cooperation? And why spread a self-deluding narrative that supporting an alliance of autocracies with a country forcibly occupying another people is “conducive to sustainable regional peace”, as per the EU plan?

Even setting the Palestinian issue aside, there is no clear evidence that the Accords have improved regional stability.

On the contrary, they have exacerbated tensions between Morocco and Algeria, bolstered Sudan’s military rulers vis-à-vis pro-democracy forces, and contributed to the region’s militarisation.

In Libya too, a recent secretive attempt to promote normalisation with Israel resulted in a destabilising scandal.

Rather than peace, the Abraham Accords represent a departure from international law, which the EU is bound by its treaties to promote.

As part of the Accords, the US and Israel recognised Morocco’s illegal annexation of the Western Sahara, while all participating governments turned a blind eye to Israel’s illegal annexations and settlements.

Moreover, opinion surveys show that the normalisation deals that the EU wants to support are deeply and increasingly unpopular among Arab publics across the region, despite promotion by their authoritarian rulers. With the carnage in Gaza, the public opposition has only mounted further.

Commissioner Várhelyi’s zeal in supporting the Abraham Accords is not surprising.

Viktor Orbán’s Hungary was the only EU country present at Trump’s signing ceremony for the Accords in 2020 and has kept lauding them ever since. The question is why the rest of the EU cedes to this agenda and goes along with it.

While a sizable group of member states is upset with the move, they have not gathered a qualified majority needed to block the funding plan, which has allowed the Commission to push it through.

Part of the reason is the plan’s coupling of support for the Abraham Accords with the fight against antisemitism. However, while combating antisemitism is crucial, linking it with a controversial Israeli political agenda undermines its integrity. This should make the plan more, not less objectionable. For its own sake, policy on antisemitism must be kept distinct from contentious “pro-Israel” politics.

The double shock of Hamas’ attacks and Israel’s Gaza reprisal has put the need for Israeli-Palestinian peace back on the European agenda. Pouring EU money on agreements that have demonstrably pushed peace further away and mixing it with the fight against antisemitism is exactly the way not to go about it.

Why EU's €18m for Israel undermines peace