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Balance in the Middle East

Christmas should be the season of good news and glad tidings. But it almost never fails to bring bad news and bad tidings from the birthplace of Christ himself. This year, alas, is worse than usual.

Violence has flared up again between the Palestinians and Israel. The latter is heading towards another general election in less than a month. The multiple threats against Israel are strengthening the right wing, while Israel’s hardline stance is probably strengthening the Palestinian extremists.

Israel’s right-wing Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is positioning himself as his country’s only politician capable of defending the country against Palestinian attacks, Hizbollah in Lebanon and Iran’s nuclear threat.

His electioneering includes the decision to build settlements to the east of Jerusalem. This move was condemned internationally. It will make a two-state solution with the Palestinians much harder to reach, as it will then be extremely difficult for east Jerusalem to become the capital of the Palestinian state.

Israel’s response to international criticism has been to approve even more settlements. Over the past week, 5,500 units have been approved, with 1,200 units approved for fast-tracked development around Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, some members of Netanyahu’s own Likud Party are urging him to drop the commitment to a two-state solution.

The building of settlements around east Jerusalem are the Israeli response to the recent vote at the UN General Assembly, which saw the Palestinian Authority upgraded to observer status. In effect, that vote recognised the Palestinian Authority as a state.

It is now possible for Palestinians and their international supporters to argue that the “Occupied Territories”, as they have been called so far, should now properly speaking be referred to as “Occupied Palestine”. Illegal settlements can now be referred to as colonisation.

Except that the story is not that straightforward. I have a great deal of sympathy for the plight of the Palestinians. However, in October, when the European Parliament came to vote on a bilateral agreement with Israel, which eased trade in medicinal products, I voted in favour of the agreement, even though there was a strong lobby urging a No vote because of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

I have some first-hand experience of the plight of the Palestinians. Eleven years ago, while on a Council of Europe visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, I had the experience of crossing from the former to the latter, and it was like travelling to another continent in a few minutes.

From Jerusalem, we were taken to the nearby town of Gilo, which is the town for which 1,000 new apartments have been approved in the latest settlement plan. In my diary, it was while recording the Gilo visit that I noted how similar Malta and Israel were (although Israel struck me as cleaner and better organised).

Later that same evening, we were transferred to the West Bank. For security purposes it took a long wait, in spite of the fact that we were an official delegation, to make it to Ramallah. Then, suddenly, we were in a world of bad roads, dilapidated buildings and junk cars.

There was a lot of talk then about the corruption among the Palestinian leaders and officials. It came as no surprise to me, a few years later, when Hamas won the Palestinian elections. However, I am not so naive as to think that Palestinian problems were due only to their own leadership. Israeli policies played, and still do, an important role in preventing a viable, stable Palestinian economy.

Why therefore did I vote in favour of the EU-Israeli agreement on (to give its official name) “Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products”?

In the run-up to the vote, MEPs were warned that a signal of business as usual might be understood, by Israel, to mean that the EU need not be taken seriously when its foreign policy representatives condemned illegal Israeli actions.

Were the critics of this agreement right, after all?

I recognise that many thoughtful MEPs came to that conclusion. The arguments in favour of signing the agreement, on the other hand, tended to leave out politics completely.

They stressed that this agreement was also being offered to Arab states (although they are not yet in a position to sign it). They also stressed that the agreement was one that would benefit EU citizens, by contributing to bringing down the price of medicines. Assurances were given that the trade would not involve products manufactured on illegal settlements.

These arguments played a role in helping me make up my mind. What decided me, however, was a political argument. It seems to me that, in the face of the Iranian threat to Middle East stability, the EU could not afford to send a signal that could be misinterpreted as the EU cutting loose from Israel.

I am prepared to criticise Israel strongly. I fully support EU criticisms of illegal Israeli actions. I support EU aid to the Palestinians. However, EU policy is also critical of Iranian bluster and brinkmanship. Any move that might encourage Iran could upset the balance in the Middle East.

Peace in the Middle East is difficult to visualise. With an upset balance, it becomes impossible. The region’s conflict calls for difficult decisions and cold calculations, although hope is also indispensable.

My best wishes to all The Times’ staff and readers for a festive holiday season and a prosperous 2013.

John Attard Montalto is a Labour member of the European Parliament.

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