Prospects of reinvigorating the Middle East Peace Process: a possible joint EU-US undertaking?

January 20, 2023

The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute has been an issue of strategic and common interest for the European Union (EU) and the United States (USA). The Middle East Peace Process (MEPP) was initiated through the 1991 Madrid Conference, co-sponsored by the Soviet Union and the USA. In 2002 in Madrid, the USA and the EU formalised their cooperation on the MEPP through the creation of the Middle East Quartet, which they are members of alongside Russia and the United Nations (UN), with the stated goal to revive multilateralism for the advance of the two-state solution. However, from its onset, the Quartet has not met expectations and has failed to deliver a strong multilateral message to drive progress. The most recent developments, such as the clashes in Gaza and the acts of violence in the West Bank of the summer of 2022, indicate that despite the numerous initiatives of international actors, up to this day they have failed to end the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.

Although the EU was previously recognised as an influential norm-setter in regard to the MEPP and has contributed to the shaping of international parameters that have later influenced the negotiation process, it seems that its impact on the MEPP has diminished in recent years. The limits to the EU’s influence result to a large extent from the structural and endogenous characteristics of its foreign policy, and in particular its reliance on unanimity.

As for the USA, the Biden administration has, thus far, been unwilling to reverse the previous administration’s actions that have made it even more difficult to reach a just and durable solution impossible. Although US statements have become more critical of violence (including by Israeli settlers), settlements, evictions and human rights violations, the Biden administration has not fundamentally changed course and the US President’s visit to the region in the summer of 2022 confirmed that the MEPP would not be a priority for the USA in the years to come.

The difference in priorities between the EU and the USA, which implies different dynamics when it comes to the relationships with the both the Palestinians and the Israelis, has become less obvious. Essentially, for the USA, the MEPP is notoriously secondary and independent to its relationship with Israel, which has become an integral part of US domestic politics. In turn, the EU has historically linked the MEPP with its bilateral relationshipwith Israel, although this linkage is challenged and has largely ebbed.

In this context, the question for the EU is how to design its future cooperation with the USA vis-à-vis the MEPP in the immediate, medium and long term. Although the current US administrationwould likely not oppose hypothetical political initiatives on the MEPP coming from the EU, the peace process has been largely outside the framework of EU-US cooperation, and the long-standing – yet never formally established — division of labour between the two, which relegates the EU to a secondary role, has not changed. Indeed, the USA remains the key convener of negotiations between both parties, while the EU’s function has largely been limited to that of providing financial and economic support to the peace process as well as issuing commentary via statements of intent while avoiding deploying negative leverage, notably in relations between the powerful occupying party, Israel. For the EU, this raises more general questions as per its quest for a more robust and autonomous foreign policy and — more broadly — its strategic autonomy, which should also be understood in the light of its capacity to contribute to solving conflicts in its own neighbourhood.

Against this background, one of the key recommendations of the present report is that instead of focusing on the creation of a new standing EU-US mechanism on the MEPP, the EU should act more independently and remain loyal to its own principles and its own approach towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, regardless of potential changes in the next US administration. This new ambitious approach can be undertaken both by the EU as a whole or, in the likely event that a consensus cannot be reached, by a group of like-minded member states(MS). Regardless of whether pursued jointly by all or by a select group of EU MS, the new approach should be based on the realisation that the current status quo is not sustainable and indeed that the EU has a lot to lose should it be maintained, both in terms of the further eradication of its influence over the MEPP and Israeli and Palestinian actions as well asin terms ofundermining the EU’s legitimacy on the global scene.  

Indeed, as the reactions among the actors in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA)region (and beyond) to Russia’s war against Ukraine have clearly shown, the contrast between the EU’s reaction to the Russian invasion and to Israel’s continued breaches of international law in their treatment of the Palestinians did not go unnoticed. This gave rise to both accusations of double standards among Arab constituencies and authorities alike and to the realisation that the EU can in fact act decisively should it wish to do so.

In order to explore the above-mentioned issuesin depth, the present report is divided into seven chapters. First, to facilitate an understanding of the issues analysed in the remainder of the study, the scene setter provides background information on the MEPP — a summary of its history, the most important developments, key actors, and the current state of affairs. Afterwards, Chapter 2 provides an overview of the current state of Israeli-Palestinian relations as well as explores the political scene in both the Israeli and Palestinian territories. Chapter 3 evaluates the EU’s track record in shaping the MEPP and analyses the reasons behind its declining influence on the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Next, Chapter 4 offers a review of US policy towards both Israel and Palestine. Chapter 5 provides an in-depth analysis of the normalisation of relations between Israel and someArab states along with its implications, looking into the role of the USA and otheractors in the processand exploring thepotential implications of the Abraham Accords. Chapter 6 is dedicated to an evaluation of the cooperation between the EU and the USA on the MEPP. Finally, Chapter 7 offers a set of recommendations to the EU on its future engagement in the peace process, including its relationship with the Americans, the Israelis and the Palestinians. While doing so, it looks into the applicability of the proposed recommendations under various potential future scenarios regarding developments on the political scenes in the USA, Israel, Palestine and the EU itself.