Well, it’s finally happened. The European Union, Israel’s largest trading partner, has finally moved to leverage that relationship in the interest of changing Israel’s colonial behaviour. News broke yesterday of new guidelines for trade between the EU and Israel. The EU directive instructs “all 28 member states”, forbidding “any funding, cooperation, awarding of scholarships, research funds or prizes to anyone residing in the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.”
This has been a long time in the making. The Europeans have long been frustrated with Israeli intransigence and have gotten tired of being asked to merely fund a Palestinian Authority – whose objective was to transition to a Palestinian state – while Israel continued to colonise Palestinian territory, making reaching that goal impossible. For years, the Europeans deferred to American requests to be patient and allow American mediation to move the situation forward. Indeed, American mediation has only moved the situation backward.
The EU decision is as much a slap in the face of Israel as it is a slap in the face of Washington. It is but the latest result of the widely held belief that American mediation is incapable of producing results when it comes to Israel-Palestinian peace. The message from Europe to Washington and Israel is simple and clear: we will not sit idly by as Palestine is gobbled up by Israel.
The global civil society movement for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) has had increasing success in recent years. Boycott initiatives have perhaps been the most prevalent. Divestment initiatives have also succeeded and are growing. Just yesterday, TIAA-Cref, a massive financial services provider with nearly $500bn in assets, divested holdings in Sodastream, an Israeli company based in occupied territory.
Where the nascent BDS movement’s successes have been most limited is in the “S”, securing state level sanctions. Of course for a civil society movement to change state level policy is always a difficult task but some successes have come in the form of states labeling or refusing to import Israeli settlement products.
The announcement from the EU, however, is an important step in the right direction. How effective this step will be on its own, however, is another question.
If Europe did in fact cease all trade with Israeli settlement products and all investment in Israeli colonies in the West Bank – and this new directive stops well short of that still – it would make a dent in the Israeli economy. That dent, however, would not be very big, but it would send a message.
The trouble of course is the Israeli settlements did not create themselves. They are part and parcel of a statewide initiative to colonise what is left of Palestinian territory. As I’ve explained before, targeting the settlements alone is not the way to change the behaviour of the state, the state must be targeted as well. Or, as Israeli columnist Gideon Levy put it recently in a column endorsing the boycott of Israel :
“The distinction between products from the occupation and Israeli products is an artificial creation. It’s not the settlers who are the primary culprits but rather those who cultivate their existence. All of Israel is immersed in the settlement enterprise, so all of Israel must take responsibility for it and pay the price for it. There is no one unaffected by the occupation, including those who fancy looking the other way and steering clear of it. We are all settlers.”
The EU directive is a preliminary step but a step in the right direction nonetheless. While still far from the pressure necessary, Europe is moving in the direction of increasingly pressing Israel. By starting this way, Europe leaves itself room for incrementally increasing pressure on Israel overtime to reiterate and reinforce the message that continued occupation will be met with continued sanctions.
Only by pressing Israel will it actually change its behaviour. This is refreshing to see, for a change, but there is still a long way to go.
Yousef Munayyer is a writer and political analyst based in Washington, DC. He is currently the executive director of the Palestine Centre in Washington, DC.
You can follow Yousef on Twitter @YousefMunayyer