Will Trump push the EU to more independent stands in Middle East?
Whether US President Donald Trump’s declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is akin to an act of vandalism, only time will tell. There can be no doubt it will boost his support among evangelicals and conservatives — although less so among American Jews, who appear to be split on the president’s announcement — at home and allow him to assert that he has fulfilled a campaign promise.
It is far less certain he can leverage his move to facilitate an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, something that has eluded US presidents since Jimmy Carter a generation ago.
Those who have voiced opposition in blunter terms than usual are European politicians, including French President Emmanuel Macron and Federica Mogherini, who runs the foreign affairs of the European Union. They understand only too well that the scenario implicit in US recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is a rejection of the notion that any Israeli-Palestinian peace deal would have to involve either West Jerusalem as the Israeli capital and East Jerusalem as the Palestinian capital or shared control of Jerusalem to serve as the capital of both countries.
The future Palestinian state would consist of non-contiguous parts of the West Bank to allow Israeli settlements there to remain under Israeli control. The Palestinians would have to surrender their right to demand recognition of the right of return for Palestinians who fled Israel/Palestine during the wars of 1948 and 1967.
The Europeans find themselves in the uncomfortable situation of bankrolling many projects in the occupied West Bank and Gaza while having no voice in decisions made in Washington. What is supposed to be an essential part of EU foreign policy is a charade that fools no one.
As the United States under Trump charts an increasingly solitary course — on climate, the World Trade Organisation, Iran, etc. — the question of how far the European Union will dare diverge from the United States remains. Will Trump’s unilateral decision on Jerusalem make the Europeans bolder?
Developing a Middle East policy independent of the United States is more difficult in 2018 than it would have been two decades ago. Autocratic self-preservation and the Saudi-Iranian rivalry, coupled with disastrous US policies, of which the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel is only the latest, have wrecked countries across the region and fostered anger and frustration to the suffering of the Palestinians. Added to that are concerns about the plight of the Yemenis and the Syrians.
The much hoped-for transition to democracy has morphed into a battle for the retention of political control that puts Europe in a very difficult position.
Europe has a vital interest in the stability of southern rim Mediterranean countries but it has not played its cards adroitly. It has done little to back the UN-led mission trying to find a solution to the conflict over the future of Western Sahara. It got involved in Libya without a long-term understanding of the consequences of the NATO-led military operation. It was lucky Algeria intervened, with the full consent of Tunisian leaders, to stabilise North Africa’s smallest country in 2011-15.
Europe faces an imperial challenge that includes exercising influence in its periphery in ways that have a greater affinity with the requirements of empire than with those of an interstate system.
As Herfried Munkler notes in his book “Empires,” Europeans must “keep up a two-way relationship with the more powerful United States; they must take care that they do not simply provide resources for its operations and step in afterward to handle the consequences, without having any say in the political-military decisions.” In other words, they must resist marginalisation.
They must also attempt to prevent collapse on their periphery without being drawn into a spiral of expansion that would overtax the European Union.
However, EU foreign policy is already suffering from imperial overstretch without being an empire.
Until recently, Europeans tended to emphasise their economic strength and visualise their relationship with the United States as one of equilibrium. In so doing, they overlooked or downplayed two points: The erosion or collapse of the United States would pose greater problems for Europe than it would solve and the prospect of equilibrium with Europe could induce the United States to turn more to a military solution.
The uncertainty over future American policy that the unilateral behaviour of Trump is creating, not least over Jerusalem, only adds to Europe’s discomfort. As EU relations with Turkey deteriorate, Russia re-enters the region and the Saudi-Iran rivalry proceeds apace, the European Union finds it next to impossible to formulate a coherent set of responses.
Trump’s unilateral decision of the status of Jerusalem offers another example of the United States walking away from internationally binding agreements. The United States might yet leave the internationally sanctioned nuclear agreement with Iran.
The Europeans have no option other than to stand up to the United States, however uncomfortable that may be.
In a region wracked by political, ethnic and ideological conflict, respecting the international rule of law is the only way to avoid sliding into all-out war.