The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: Notes From a Small Neigboring Island – Lessons from the reactions to the crisis

In a series of brief blog posts, researchers of the PRIO Middle East Centre offer their reflections on the unfolding Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

Beyond its immediate effects and first reading, the recent crisis in the Middle East has accentuated some emerging issues and lead to reflections of wider applicability.

The first relates to the European Union. The crisis proved that the Union in its ability to formulate, let alone pursue, a common foreign policy on this and other matters and geographies, has declined to now be at the point of paralysis and irrelevance.

The EU failed, yet again, to speak with one voice, and limited itself to a lukewarm, even if well intended, statement by HRVP Borrell. One country used its veto to block a decision by consensus. It was Hungary this time; but there are numerous other instances when individual states derailed EU foreign policy and prevented the Union from acting in unison, in turn barring it from playing a role.

To take but one example, the Republic of Cyprus has gone in the veto direction more than once, regarding Russia (issue of Crimea), action on Belarus, and, even more pertinent in this case, Israel (with reference to the Golan Heights). Critics might even point to the Hungarian veto in this instance being convenient for others who might have been called to make a tough decision. The exercise or threat of a veto, an understandably useful weapon of last resort for smaller or weaker Member States, is now at risk of unwise over-utilization.

This has been leading to growing frustration within the Union and it will not be surprising if the EU moves in the direction of qualified majority decision mechanisms in the future, indeed potentially sooner, rather than later.

Cyprus, in fact, offers a useful insight into a second trend by which we increasingly see the prioritization of realist politics over declared principled positions.

After decades of (problematic) parallelization of the Cyprus issue to the Palestinian cause that led to extremely difficult relations between Cyprus (as well as Greece) and Israel, the Republic of Cyprus made a U-turn in its foreign policy and has been siding actively or passively – and, in essence, virtually completely – with Israel on several fronts.

This turnaround has been prompted by a currently prevalent specific foreign policy view and interpretation of energy developments in the Eastern Mediterranean, the security environment, financial considerations, and a convergence of efforts by some countries against Turkey.

Combined with a similarly changing stance vis-à-vis Russia, the Republic of Cyprus’ foreign policy has become an interesting case study of realpolitik by a small state.

Cyprus pioneered or joined certain regional initiatives or alignments and it allied itself with powerful neighbors, like Israel. This, however, has also come at a cost.

Critics highlight a highly selective application of international law principles, to the point of complete sidelining key premises therein, regarding virtually identical experiences when it comes to aggression, annexation, invasion, use of force, and human rights.

Although it may yield some ephemeral benefits, this utilitarian approach and selective invocation of fundamental legal principles has been criticized as one opening Pandora’s box for a small state such as Cyprus:

  • it weakens the efficacy of international law;
  • it challenges the moral high ground they can otherwise claim;
  • it undermines the future use of law as a powerful tool against revisionist claims by more powerful adversaries;
  • and it eventually alienates friends and allies.

The flexibility of principles and their sacrifice to realpolitik is often one of the key lessons we identify after crises such as the present one in the Middle East. Sadly, we rarely meaningfully address it as a cause – until the next crisis.

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