The diplomatic escalation of words and actions between Israel and the world has only just begun. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu does not hide his decision to expand Israeli settlement building in the occupied territories in the face of global criticism, because in fact it serves him very well in his own re-election campaign. This is especially true when it comes to European criticism, less so when it comes from the White House. But, nonetheless, Barack Obama is not very popular with Netanyahu’s voters and for them an unhappy Obama means Netanyahu must be doing something right. Even less popular amongst Netanyahu voters are the countries of Europe, which, Israeli voters are often reminded, have anti-Semitic pasts.
The Israeli settlement drive is allegedly in response to the Palestinian state recognition vote in the United Nations. Israel asserts that the U.N. cannot create a Palestinian state; it can only be achieved through Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Settlement expansion drives home the point all too well that Palestinians have no control over the territory that is supposed to become part of their State. Netanyahu seems oblivious to the possibility that with his own vengeful unilateral acts he may be eliminating the possibility of eventually creating a Palestinian state, which is the only real means for achieving peace with Israel’s neighbors. Many of Netanyahu’s supporters remain opposed to the creation of a Palestinian state, fearing new terror attacks if the Israeli army no longer controls the territory.
The decision of some European states to reprimand the Israeli ambassadors in their capitals goes beyond the normal EU statements that settlement building in the occupied territory is against international law and is an obstacle to peace. Some European states have already launched more serious steps towards discouraging Israeli settlement policies. The labeling of goods produced in settlements as “Made in the Occupied Palestinian Territories” has begun. These products would not enjoy tariff-free entry into the EU under the Israeli-EU free trade agreement. Some states are discussing the possibility of preventing the marketing of settlement products in their countries—if settlements are illegal then surely the goods produced in settlements must be illegal contraband. Will these steps alone have the power to persuade the Israeli government to halt settlement building? Probably not, but they should signal to the Israeli government and people that the advocates of the two-state solution around the world are tired of being passive observers while the chances of real peace between Israel and its neighbors disappear by mutually wounding Israeli and Palestinian unilateral steps.
What else might be considered? The EU should apply pressure on the Palestinians to hold back on moves to take Israel to the International Court of Justice in the Hague and to not file suits against Israelis in the International Criminal Court; those steps at this time would be counter-productive. The EU should continue to support the state building efforts in Palestine so that the newly recognized State of Palestine can actually function as a state as well as entering into full diplomatic international relations with all of the states that recognize Palestine. European representative missions in Palestine should now be upgraded to full embassies.
A step that would surely impact Israeli citizens immediately would be to renew a visa requirement for Israelis to enter Europe. European countries could decide that most Israelis would continue to enter Europe without a visa, but that residents of the occupied territories living in settlements would not be granted a visa. All Israelis carry identity cards which indicate their place of residence; it would not be too difficult to determine who is living in a settlement and who is not. At the Tel Aviv airport Israel refuses entry to many foreigners who are entering Israel to visit Palestine. Israel is even now stamping the passports of those people, indicating that they are not allowed to travel freely in Israel but are “only valid for travel in Judea and Samaria,” meaning in the Palestinian territories. It would not be outrageous for European countries to consider policies that would limit the ability of people residing in illegal settlements to have free entry to Europe.
Europe should consider a series of steps escalating gradually in their smarting impact and let the government of Israel know what would be the consequences of continued settlement building activities. Hopefully none of the steps would actually be implemented. In order for Europe to move beyond words and to actually have the ability to influence positive Israeli and Palestinian movement towards real peace, it must be willing implement policies that can convince people and governments that Europe is serious.