At the beginning of May, during a visit to Ramallah on the West Bank, Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier of Germany declared that
Realistically, one must say that there are opportunities now that were not there in the past, but at the same time the risks are just as high. The opportunity lies in the fact that the Arab world is being much more constructive—the Arab League’s decision to renew its peace initiative was more than helpful—and I am pleased that it was also welcomed by the Israeli government.
Steinmeier—who made this statement during a session with President Mahmoud Abbas and Foreign Minister Ziad Abu Amr—was referring to the Arab peace initiative, whose envoys are soon expected in Israel for talks. Given the circumstances on the ground, this may yet be another signal that the Europeans are warming up to the idea of trying to renew the Arab-Israeli peace process. In theory, the new initiative would make possible an agreement between Israel and the larger Arab world while bypassing and imposing a settlement on the recalcitrant Palestinian factions.
Though under its German presidency—due to end on June 30—the EU made a strong commitment to advance the Middle East peace process, it has been cautious in dealing with the Palestinian Authority, and has so far stuck to its embargo on aid. Even after the establishment of the Hamas-Fatah national unity government, the EU did not budge, limiting itself to contact with non-Hamas ministers, dialogue with Abbas, and a renewed commitment to the temporary aid mechanism instituted by the EU after the elections in January 2006. As recently as late April, EU Commissioner Louis Michel said
There is no change as long as you have in the government a party that refuses to leave its armed wing and armed action. . . . We cannot deal with people who have an armed wing. It would be a very dangerous precedent.
But calls for a change of direction are mounting, with EU parliamentarians taking the lead. A delegation of them recently visited Gaza and met with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh, defying the EU ban on direct contact with Hamas ministers. And a new petition, signed by dozens of members of the European Parliament, calls for recognition of the Hamas-Fatah government and for direct EU engagement with it.
Unfortunately for the parliamentarians, Palestinian reality quickly reasserted itself. Less than a week after their visit, two members of Fatah’s Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade were gunned down in a Gaza ambush during which an additional fourteen were wounded. (Revealing, perhaps the true colors of Palestinian “moderation and maturity,” to quote one of the European parliamentarians arguing for direct engagement.)
Factional fighting between Hamas and Fatah has increased; the survival of the unity government hangs in the balance; efforts by both Abbas and Haniyeh to secure the release of BBC correspondent Alan Johnston have failed; and Palestinian society is on the brink of implosion. Given these circumstances, it is no wonder that EU officials—ever a cautious lot—should ignore the wishes of Europe’s parliamentarians and attempt to carve out a diplomatic path that bypasses the Palestinians altogether.