The gauntlet has been thrown down. This US administration has shown definitively that it will not be bound at all by historical international norms, conventions and arguably even laws. Moreover, this can play very effectively to Trump’s base at home.
European powers and leaders have to be the grown-ups in the room, but also be prepared to demonstrate more political courage than usual in standing up to American-Israeli bullying and repudiating illegal Israeli actions. For starters, EU leaders should take no lectures from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on not condemning rocket attacks from Gaza.
But the EU once again must be the guarantors of international law. The historical position on Jerusalem, that the EU and others did not recognize any sovereignty over any part of the city, has lasted for a reason. It was a rational position to take over a city whose status remains so sensitive to so many. It is not the US’ role to decide single-handedly the future of a city sacred to three faiths and two peoples. Other powers may play a role, but Russia hardly has a leg to stand on given its actions in Syria and guardianship of a criminal regime in Damascus.
European leaders have to be prepared to demonstrate more political courage than usual in standing up to American-Israeli bullying and repudiating illegal Israeli actions.
To do this, the EU will have to stand united, working in lockstep with its partners, and shift from its usual invertebrate position on Israel, not least in their meeting with Netanyahu this week. There have been mixed signals. At the UN Security Council on Dec. 8, the Europeans were very much united in leaving the US completely isolated. The three main actors, France, Germany and Britain, all publicly opposed the US’ decision. On the other hand, the Czech Republic stated that it recognized West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital but that it would not be moving its embassy there from Tel Aviv just yet. Other countries that need to be peeled away from positions of appeasement to Israel include Hungary and Greece.
The German position, as ever, may be seminal. While Trump and France’s Emmanuel Macron speak almost weekly, no such rapport exists between the American President and Chancellor Angela Merkel. Foreign Minister Sigmar Gabriel issued his own stark warning as to the direction of German foreign policy: “Germany can no longer simply react to US policy but must establish its own position… even after Trump leaves the White House, relations with the US will never be the same.”
The European leader with the time and political space to lead the European stance may well be Macron, and it is he who got the dubious honor of being the first international leader to tackle Netanyahu after the Jerusalem announcement. Macron’s energetic Middle East diplomacy is notable and he will have to be tougher with the Israeli premier, not just on Jerusalem but also Israeli settlement plans and home demolitions. Merely asking him in public to make a gesture to the Palestinians simply does not cut it. The problem is that Netanyahu’s position at home is so weak he will be in hyper-combative mood.
Some in the EU, Macron included, may well see an opportunity for a more significant EU role given the latest developments. The EU will also not want Russia to fill the vacuum, as it has done elsewhere in the region.
To do that, however, they will have to clash with Trump and Netanyahu on many other issues because, on the ground, the Jerusalem recognition is not the biggest threat to peace. Israeli plans to annex settlement blocs to Jerusalem and cast out three Palestinian neighborhoods from the city represent a peace demolition job of a far more concrete nature.
What are the chances of this happening? Not likely judging by recent history. Yet this US decision has ripped up the diplomatic map and, at some stage, Europe may have to wake from its lethargy. Too many crises are erupting in its near neighborhood, where the European reaction has been flailing and inadequate. Perhaps the Jerusalem crisis may be the wake-up call that the EU needs.
• Chris Doyle is director of the London-based Council for Arab-British Understanding (CAABU). He has worked with the council since 1993 after graduating with a first class honors degree in Arabic and Islamic Studies at Exeter University. He has organized and accompanied numerous British parliamentary delegations to Arab countries.