By Elsa Buchanan
The European Union has added more to its dangling bunch of carrots with a renewed offer of its Special Privileged Partnership (SPP) – a form of enhanced trilateral agreements – promising unparalleled support for Israel and the Palestinians if a peace accord is signed.
But while the EU has successfully used greater political and trade ties to promote peace in the Balkans in the past, experts warn the member states’ offer is ill-timed, widely overlooked, and unattractive.
So, could the EU’s pledge play a part in the Gaza peace process? Or could the European leaders outline a more mouth-watering proposition to speed things up?
Conditioned on an Israeli/Palestinian peace agreement and an end to Israel’s occupation, the SPP would be triangular relationship between the EU, Israel and a future Palestinian state.
The first and last time the partnership was mentioned by European leaders was in December 2013, but the EU’s battle with a disconnection in terms of vision and application means it somewhat failed to actually press on with the offer during the recent botched peace negotiations.
However, Israel feels it already has most of what it needs through its current EU-Israel Association Agreement, signed in 2000, which Lovatt says continues to be thickened despite an official EU decision to freeze any upgrades pending an Israeli/Palestinian peace agreement.
And therein lies the problem. Israel has all its carrots dangled at once.
“The SPP as it stands is just not that special for Israel and risks being advanced at the expense of other EU measures that have had a noticeable impact on Israeli public opinion such the 2013 Guidelines and EU moves to differentiate between Israel proper and its settlements through its bilateral relations,” Hugh Lovatt, Middle East Peace Process project officer for the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR) noted.
A public opinion poll rolled out by the ECFR in March found that only 12.9% of Israel thought a substantial upgrade of the political, economic, and security ties between Europe and Israel would by itself influence the Israeli government and members of Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to accept a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
The survey also showed a very even split amongst respondents on whether the SPP would influence their own readiness to support an agreement, although a majority did want to know more about the offer.
‘[After announcing it] the EU hadn’t given that much thinking in terms of what more the partnership could mean. It has ideas, but it is yet to spell it out,’ Lovatt added.
Ideas that have been floated include deepening relations in terms of market integration, trade and investment, and research and innovation, he explained, as well as relaxing requirements for work visas and creating an EU-Israel-Palestine customs union.
Looking for a ‘EU membership minus the institutions’
The current incentive, which has been seen as a buy-off by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu predominantly right-wing coalition government, has been yet again received with utter silence by the Israeli authorities.
At the time of writing, the media were yet to pick up the EU proposition, and no statement had been made by Netanyahu’s office.
To have any noticeably impact on the Israeli side the EU would need to come up with an offer that Israel can’t refuse or that is not seen by right-wingers as a bribe to give up settlements.
So what are the Israelis looking for? And how far could the EU go with a new proposition?
One possibility could be along the lines of Croatia’s EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana’s 2009 suggestion of ‘EU membership minus the institutions’, which would give Israel access to all EU programmes.
Other partnership models could include those the EU has signed with Turkey and Norway.
‘Unlike Israel, Turkey has a customs union with the EU – one of only 3 EU customs unions, alongside Andorra and San Marino- so this is obviously one model which could be followed with Israel, and is even more noteworthy given that Turkey is an EU candidate country unlike Israel,’ Lovatt explained.
Another possible model would be similar to Norway which would entail far deeper integration outlined in the European Economic Area (EEA).
However, the SPP is a trilateral proposition and, while most of the thinking has focussed on Israel given the asymmetry of the conflict and the fact that Israel is the occupying power and it is its behaviour that needs to change, Palestinian officials have kept quiet.
‘Palestinians would obviously be happy with an SPP, but no one is taking the EU offer that seriously on their side.
‘This is not the first time the EU has proposed an economic package as an incentive for Israel to make peace without effect,’ Lovatt explained. ‘So very few Palestinians believe that it is enough to moderate Israel’s stance towards them and move it towards a peace agreement.’
In other words, in Palestinian minds the chances of ever benefiting from an SPP are slim to non-existent.