Seeking an Alternative to Two States European Right Wing Stirs Up Middle East Peace Process
Right-wing populists are not widely known for pursuing peace in Europe. But in the Middle East, they are seeking to change that reputation. A conference right-wing politicians helped organize between Palestinian clan leaders and Jewish settlers took place on Thursday in Hebron. They are billing it as an alternative path to peace in the region.
European right-wing populist parties are widely vilified back home. Deeply wary of the euro, extremely -- and vocally -- suspicious of Muslim immigrants and virulently opposed to the center-left multicultural ideal, they are broadly seen as little more than dangerous makers of mischief on the political stage. Often, they are conflated with neo-Nazi groups even further to the right.
Overseas, however, particularly among Israeli right-wing politicians and West Bank settlers, they are often viewed more favorably. On Thursday, representatives from several European right-wing political parties joined senior settler leaders, second-tier Israeli politicians, Orthodox Jewish leaders and a number of Palestinian clan leaders at the home of Sheikh Farid al-Jabari in Hebron. They came together with no less than the goal of establishing an alternative to the two-state, Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
"First and foremost, we are interested in achieving peaceful coexistence in the region. I think that needs to be the goal of all efforts," Heinz-Christian Strache, head of the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "To that end, it is important to begin a dialogue. I am convinced that a solution can be found in the near future that is acceptable to all sides."
Strache himself was unable to attend the Thursday meeting, but his party, primarily his close confidant David Lasar, an FPÖ member of the Viennese city-state government, played an instrumental role in putting it together. Joining Lasar in Hebron were Filip Dewinter, a Flemish parliamentarian from the right-wing party Vlaams Belang, and Kent Ekeroth of the similarly minded Swedish Democrats.
'Not Beloved by Everyone'
It wasn't the first such meeting between Sheikh Jabari and senior settler leaders -- represented most prominently by Gershon Mesika, head of the Shomron Regional Council, which administers 30 West Bank settlements -- to have been midwifed by European right-wing populists. It follows on the heels of a meeting hosted at the headquarters of European Parliament in mid-May by Fiorello Provera, a member of the Italian anti-immigration party Liga Nord and vice chair of the European Parliament's Foreign Relations Committee. Although the meeting was not official parliamentary business, it nevertheless carried symbolic value taking place as it did in Brussels.
"Palestinian society is nuanced. There is Hamas and there is the Palestine Liberation Organization. But you also have ordinary people who think and act differently than they do," Provera told SPIEGEL ONLINE in an interview. "The settlers, too, are not beloved by everyone in Israel, they are considered to be extremists. But they have to be understood. How do people expect to build a peace agreement without listening to the various groups of Israelis and Palestinians?"
Provera's question is a revealing one. European right-wing populists have spent much of the last two years building relations with conservative Israeli politicians and West Bank settlers. Provera himself went on a tour of the West Bank earlier this year, following the path of several populist leaders before him, Strache included.
Most went to Israel with a deep-seated conviction that the country -- given its presence on the front line in the conflict with Islam, as Strache told SPIEGEL ONLINE last year -- deserves greater support from Europe. Most came back with an even deeper mistrust of the Palestinian Authority and concern that the two-state solution could merely result in another radical Muslim state on Israel's doorstep. Their skeptical view of the Arab Spring -- as an uprising of Muslim fundamentalism -- has only reinforced such fears.
It is a position, of course, which closely parallels that of the populists' main partners in Israel: conservative politicians from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party, parliamentarians from the ultra-orthodox religious Shas party and settler leaders, who are concerned that the two-state solution would force them to give up their homes and their claims to part of what they see as the Jewish homeland.
Pursuing and Alternative Vision
Furthermore, the Palestinian Authority's ongoing flirtations with Hamas in the Gaza Strip and continued reluctance to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, as demanded by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, have frustrated the Israeli government. Indeed, in his speech before US Congress in 2011, Netanyahu claimed disingenuously that, were the Palestinian Authority merely to say, "We recognize Israel as a Jewish state," it would be sufficient to end the conflict.
Though the path to dissatisfaction with the two-state peace process has been different among some Palestinians, clan leaders such as Sheikh Jabari have arrived at a similar conviction that an alternative vision must be pursued. Jabari is deeply frustrated by what he describes as a corrupt Palestinian Authority that has done little to help his native Hebron. Furthermore, he is convinced that Palestinians can never accept a two-state solution due to religious prerogatives forbidding Muslims from giving up claims to what they see as Muslim land.
"We don't want to live under illusions," Jabari told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "The creation of a Palestinian state is impossible. It is against our religious principles because we cannot give up land. The idea is a stillbirth."
As an alternative, Jabari envisions a single state within which Palestinians live legally and in peace with their Jewish neighbors. And he has taken significant steps to make that vision a reality. For several years, Jabari has nurtured contacts with Jewish leaders in Hebron and has hosted several meetings aimed at, as he says, "eliminating the hate that has been building in recent generations."
Some on the Israeli right see his efforts as a promising attempt to create an alternative negotiating partner to the Palestinian Authority. "There is a common understanding that the Palestinian Authority has really failed in fulfilling the Oslo peace process vision," David Haivri, spokesman for settlement administrator Mesika, told SPIEGEL ONLINE. "There might be many who haven't considered an alternative. But I see Jabari as a possible solution to the conundrum."
Claim to the West Bank
The Palestinian Authority, of course, is deeply concerned by the effort, and particularly by the involvement of European politicians, whatever their stripe. In May, the Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a strongly worded condemnation of Mesika's invitation to visit members of the European Parliament, calling him a terrorist and expressing its hope that it "will not represent a new approach in dealing with the Palestinian Question."
A Foreign Ministry spokeswoman stressed to SPIEGEL ONLINE that the Palestinian Authority remains the official partner to the international community. "Not just anyone can represent the Palestinian people," she said. Furthermore, the Palestinian Authority regards all settlements on the West Bank as being in violation of international law, a position that Europe officially supports.
Given that the Palestinian Authority's position is largely mirrored by that of the international community, including the US, it remains unclear just how fruitful the nascent dialogue might ultimately be. All those present on Thursday vowed to meet again in the near future and optimism was in abundance. Still, changing decades of peace politics, to say nothing of finding common ground between two groups who believe in their historical and religious rights to lay claim to the West Bank, promises to be difficult.
And for all their eagerness to heighten their foreign policy credentials in order to emerge from the political margins back home, the role Europe's right-wing populist parties will play in the Mideast remains an open question. Although Haivri said he had limited expectations, he also offered that, "by inviting us to Brussels and hosting us (on Thursday), the Europeans are facilitating the dialogue." He added: "We are aware of the historical ideology they stem from and we hope that the relationship they have with the Jewish and Arab sides is a true sign that they have moved away from racism."
Jabari, however, seemed more willing to overlook the provenance of his chosen mediators. "It is not a problem to talk to the right-wing politicians from Europe because they are straightforward and honest," he says. "The fact that they are coming here and visiting us is proof that they are serious."