Saturday, 25 October 2014

Green Lines and Red Lines

          “Settlements” – there’s a word to conjure with.  It carries connotations of hardy pioneers, supported by their doughty wives, trekking across empty plains to set up a collection of makeshift homes on virgin land, aiming to scratch a living from the barren soil.  When applied to Israel, however, the term has been stretched well-nigh beyond breaking point to embrace wholly urban districts of Jerusalem with populations of up to 50,000, like Ramot, Pisgat Ne’eve, or Gilo, or fully-fledged cities such as Beitar Illit, Ma’ale Adumim or Modi’in.  Over the years “settlement” has become a catch-all description for housing and social developments, large and small, carried out in the areas that Israel captured from Jordan in the Six Day War of 1967 – in other words, beyond the Green Line. 

            The Green Line?  During the 1949 Arab-Israeli Armistice Agreement talks, presided over by UN mediator Dr Ralph Bunche, someone seized a green pencil and delineated the boundary lines between the armies of Israel and those of Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria at the moment the fighting ceased in 1948.  At Arab insistence, the terms of the Armistice Agreements made it abundantly clear that the Green Lines were not creating permanent borders. In the words of former President of the International Court of Justice, Professor Judge Stephen M Schwebel, they "expressly preserved the territorial claims of all parties, and did not purport to establish definitive boundaries between them."

As far as the West Bank and East Jerusalem were concerned, the wording states:  “No provision of this Agreement shall in any way prejudice the rights, claims and positions of either Party hereto in the ultimate peaceful settlement of the Palestine question, the provisions of this Agreement being dictated exclusively by military considerations.” 

From 1949 the areas bounded by the Green Lines represented the status quo between Israel and its Arab neighbors until, on 6 June 1967, Israel pre-empted the co-ordinated Arab attack about to be launched on it from Egypt, Syria and Jordan. In the fighting that followed, areas beyond the Green Line west of the River Jordan fell into Israel’s hands, and over the years the basic principle of the armistice agreement has become blurred.  In many minds – including, it would seem, among UN and EU officials – those armistice lines, which “did not purport to establish definitive boundaries”, have morphed into the borders of a putative sovereign state of Palestine.  The Palestinian Authority (PA) certainly subscribes to this view.  Ignoring entirely the terms of the agreement, it is currently asking the world to recognise a state of Palestine bounded by the Green Line, and including East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Previous peace negotiations, of which there have been many, have produced modified versions of this demand, including the swapping of land on either side of the Green Line to allow the major Israeli conurbations to remain within Israel while increasing the area allotted to a Palestinian state by equivalent amounts.  As each attempt at reaching a deal has collapsed, so the delicate give-and- take of negotiation and compromise has collapsed with it. Now, with PA President Mahmoud Abbas wooing the UN Security Council for its backing to by-pass peace negotiations altogether, recognise the state of Palestine and demand Israel’s withdrawal from the whole of the occupied territories within a given deadline – November 2016 has been mentioned – the settlement issue has assumed major significance.  It is certainly impacting on Israel’s relations with the EU.

Last week a confidential internal EU briefing document, intended only for the eyes of the EU ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, found its way into the media. Declaring that the EU regards sustaining the two-state solution as its priority, the document sets out a series of “Red Lines” regarding possible Israeli intentions in what it designates “the occupied Palestinian territories”.  Faaborg-Andersen is required to hold “thorough discussions” with the Israeli government on these new EU Red Lines.  Reading between the lines – if one may put it so  it is a fair assumption that the EU is gearing itself up to tighten the economic restrictions it has already imposed on industrial and commercial activity by Israeli companies with interests beyond the Green Line.

Back in June the Director of Carnegie Europe, Jan Techau, wisely remarked that EU-Israeli relations were in danger of being “hi-jacked by settlements”.  Mutually beneficial cooperation between the EU and Israel, he believes, is being undermined by the settlement issue, which is increasingly dominating the debate between the two sides.

That EU-Israeli relationship is certainly fast-developing.  Not only is scientific and technology cooperation intensive, but the trade volume between the two is enormous and growing. In July 2012, the EU took unprecedented measures to enhance its relations with Israel in sixty trade and diplomatic policy areas, including increased access to its single market, closer cooperation on transport and energy, and enhanced ties with nine EU agencies.  And in October 2012, despite fierce opposition from the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement, the European parliament ratified a critical framework agreement to facilitate the export to Europe of Israeli industrial products.

Yet, as veteran Middle East observer Stephen J Rosen recently pointed out, the EU’s policy towards Israel seems to be moving in opposite directions at the same time. While one path is marked by expanding economic co-operation, the other shaped by policies centred on the settlements is apparently designed to encourage boycotts of Israel's major banks and many of its key companies and research institutions. 

The settlement issue divides Israeli public opinion pretty nearly down the middle, but none can deny that it has become a hot potato in Israel’s international, and indeed Jewish diaspora, relations.  In the judgement of the Director of Carnegie Europe:  “The current government still underestimates the enormous damage it does to its own reputation and credibility when it authorizes further developments of settlements in disputed areas.” 

Should dialogue fail to resolve the EU’s new Red Lines to its satisfaction, they could well turn into ultimata to Israel, with tightening of sanctions as the deterrent.  There is surely a pressing need for Israel to engage with the EU about the settlement issue, as part of a wider dialogue aimed at clarifying the whole matter of financial, industrial and commercial activity outside the Green Line.

“There’s no point trying to dress it up,” writes Elinadav Heymann, director of the European Friends of Israel, “the issue of settlements is a boil on the EU-Israel relationship that needs to be lanced.”  

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 26 October 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 26 October 2014:

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