Belgium and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; the cautious pursuit of a just peace

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Even if it is a modest international player, Belgium aspires to play a role of importance on the international scene, strongly basing its foreign policy on legal and moral principles. With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it strives to be
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  77 S TUDIA  D IPLOMATICA  2013 • LXVI-4 Belgium and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict The Cautious Pursuit of a Just Peace B RIGITTE  H ERREMANS Evolution of Belgium’s Position Ever since Godfrey of Bouillon’s passage in the Holy Land during thecrusades, there has been an interest in the Christian holy sites in the territorythat is now called Belgium. When France and the United Kingdom (UK)divided the Middle East upon the implosion of the Ottoman Empire after theFirst World War, the Belgian state expressed an interest in exercising themandate over Jerusalem. Other than that, Belgium’s interest in historic Pales-tine was mainly driven by the hope of finding new markets. Another factor wasthe influence of the pro-Arab lobby that had been active since Belgium’seconomic investments in Egypt in the 19 th  century. The Belgian state hasopened a consulate in Jerusalem in the middle of the 19 th  century, mainly tooffer protection to Christian pilgrims. Since that time, Belgium is assigned withthe protection of the Christian holy places in Jerusalem, together with France,Italy and Spain. When the UK took control over historic Palestine in 1917 andstarted its official mandate in 1920, it effectively curtailed Belgium’s aspira-tions.Upon the UK’s announcement that it would return its mandate over historicPalestine to the League of Nations, Belgium favoured the establishment of aunitary state, rather than a partition of the land into a Jewish and an Arab  B RIGITTE H ERREMANS 78 S TUDIA  D IPLOMATICA  2013 • LXVI-4 state. Consequently, Belgium abstained when the United Nations SpecialCommittee on Palestine presented its partition plan on the 25 th  of June 1947.The Chief of Staff of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs declared that the partitionplan contained weak elements, such as the corridors between the Jewish andArab state. Yet, on the 29 th  of November, Belgium voted in favour of the UNGeneral Assembly (UNGA) resolution. The Belgian representative to the UN,Fernand Van Langenhove, declared that Belgium did not want to bear theresponsibility for any chaos as a result of a negative vote or abstention, andhad therefore decided to add its vote to the majority (Brachfeld, 1994).Originally, Belgium was sceptical towards the establishment of a Jewishstate. Belgian Minister of Foreign Affairs Paul-Henri Spaak declared on 3 June 1948 that the establishment of a Jewish state could be dangerous asBelgium could not guarantee the effective partitioning of Palestine as stipulatedby the resolution. He also thought that many Belgian citizens were not suffi-ciently convinced of the legitimacy of the Jewish cause, i.e. the establishment of a Jewish state in Mandatory Palestine (Brachfeld, 1994). For Belgium, themain priority in 1948 was a cessation of hostilities. When Israel applied forUN membership, Belgium abstained from the vote (UNGA, 1948). However,in January 1949, the government de facto recognized the new state. De jurerecognition ensued in January 1950, with the important caveat that thisentailed recognition of Israel’s territorial limits as set by the 1949 ArmisticeLines. Belgium especially wanted to avoid the recognition of Israel’s claims on Jerusalem and believed it should remain international territory (De Raey-maeker, 1979).After 1950, relations with Israel were friendly. In the following fifteen years,Belgium would abstain from taking a critical stance towards the Israeli govern-ment. It also supported Israel during the Suez conflict. Belgium condemnedEgyptian President’s Nasser colonization of the Suez Canal as it considered hispolicy a threat to Western interests in the Middle East. Therefore, the Belgianstate backed French and British diplomatic initiatives within the UN. However,it was hesitant about the appropriateness of an Anglo-French and Israeli mili-tary incursion, out of fear that this would drive Nasser closer to the USSR.Unlike the US, Belgium did not openly oppose the Anglo-French action. Disap-pointed by the position of the US, Belgium continued to support its NATOpartners in the UN (Dumoulin, 1999). It believed that a common Western posi-tion would end Nasser’s initiatives and dissuade the USSR. The Belgian delega-tion abstained from voting in most of the Security Council resolutions that  79 S TUDIA  D IPLOMATICA  2013 • LXVI-4 B ELGIUMANDTHE I SRAELI -P ALESTINIAN C ONFLICT aimed at ending the conflict (Hellema, 2011). Mr Spaak’s stated motives wereto uphold the UN’s role in guaranteeing peace and security while maintainingBelgium’s friendship with Israel, France and the UK.Since the June 1967 Six-Day War, Belgium has pursued a more balancedpolicy, increasingly acknowledging the Arab countries’ position. Prior to theoutbreak of the Six-Day war, Belgium had expressed its concern over access tothe Straits of Tiran, and strongly defended Israel’s right to free passage.During the hostilities, Pierre Harmel, Minister of Foreign Affairs at the time,spoke in parliament, presenting both sides of the issue and stressing the impor-tance of Israel’s right to exist (Senate, 1967). After the hostilities had ceased,Mr Harmel emphasized the importance of the UN’s role, fearing the super-powers would impose their solution.Belgium pronounced itself in favour of the implementation of SecurityCouncil Resolution 242, calling for Israel’s withdrawal from ‘the’ occupiedterritories, in accordance with the French version of the resolution whichunequivocally requires Israel’s withdrawal from all territory occupied duringthe 1967 war. It was happy that the resolution included the need to guaranteefreedom to navigate international waterways, and the right to sovereignty of states of the region within international borders, while at the same denouncingacts of aggression. As it has been the victim of occupation and war over thecourse of its own history, Belgium strongly opposed the acquisition of territoryby force. During the debate over this resolution, Mr Harmel declared thatIsrael must relinquish its expansionist ideas and its pursuit of military occupa-tion. Henceforth, Belgium would systematically condemn violations perpetratedby the Israeli and the Arab side, resulting in a policy of equilibrium (De Raey-maeker, 1984).From 1970 onwards, Belgium increasingly took the Palestinian perspectiveinto account, starting with the Palestinian refugee issue. Mr Harmel stated inthe General Assembly of the UN that the solution would be to establish a‘national home’. Yet, Belgium did not go as far as to pronounce itself in favourof Palestinian self-determination. It also abstained at the UNGA vote on theinalienable rights of the Palestinian people, as the resolution did not refer toIsrael’s right to exist (UNGA, 1970).Following the introduction of the European Political Cooperation in 1970,positions were increasingly adopted within a European framework. When theYom Kippur war broke out on 5 October 1973, Belgium did not wait for acommon position. Minister of Foreign Affairs Renaat Van Elslande declared  B RIGITTE H ERREMANS 80 S TUDIA  D IPLOMATICA  2013 • LXVI-4 during a debate at the UNGA that the violation of the armistice agreement bythe Egypt and Syria was regrettable. At the same time he recognised that thesituation was complex and that Syria and Egypt could not no longer acceptIsrael’s refusal to withdraw from the territories it occupied. He pleaded for theUN to resolve the stalemate and play a role of facilitator, in order to end thehostilities and start a diplomatic initiative on the basis of UNSC resolution 242(De Raeymaeker, 1984).The eruption of the oil crisis in 1973, with the imposition of an oil embargoby OPEC countries, forced the European Economic Community (EEC) to takeArab countries’ demands into greater account. The Foreign Ministers feltcompelled to issue the Brussels Declaration, containing the main elements for afair and just solution (EEC, 1973). Belgium claimed that it had a neutral posi-tion, pursuing the policy of equilibrium between Israel and the Arab states thatit had adopted in 1967 (De Raeymaeker, 1984). Yet, the Belgian positionbecame more vocal on the rights of the Palestinian people. In an influentialspeech in the Belgian Parliament in 1975, Mr Van Elslande stated that thePalestinian question was not merely humanitarian, but that the Palestinianshad a right to their own state (Senate, 1975). The European Council adoptedthis position only in 1977.As one of the nine members of the EEC, Belgium supported the VeniceDeclaration in 1980, calling for the recognition of the Palestinian right to self-determination and the right of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO)to be involved in peace initiatives. The European position increasingly focusedon solving the Israeli-Palestinian question through the establishment of aPalestinian state, and condemning Israel’s policies with regard to East Jeru-salem and settlements. This critical stance was further developed during the1982 Lebanon war and the first Intifada (1987-1993).The end of the Cold War and the stabilizing of East-West relations broughtabout stronger Belgian focus on international law. Belgium emphasized theimportance of international rules as a factor of stabilisation, especially forsmaller states. For without this stability, such states would be at the mercy of arbitrary hegemonic decisions. This line of thought has always been deeplyembedded in Belgian political thinking. Secondly, US influence over Belgianforeign relations significantly diminished as Belgium anchored its foreign rela-tions in a European framework. It insisted on the EU’s autonomy at a globallevel, hence the country’s interest in a strong European Defence policy (Cool-saet, 2013).  81 S TUDIA  D IPLOMATICA  2013 • LXVI-4 B ELGIUMANDTHE I SRAELI -P ALESTINIAN C ONFLICT When the Middle East peace process started in the early 1990s, the Belgiangovernment saw its position affirmed that a global solution to the conflict isnecessary and that the EU needs to play an active role in this process. Duringthe mandate of Minister of Foreign Affairs Willy Claes, Belgium also played aproactive role in bringing the parties together and arranging discrete discus-sions between Israelis and Palestinians on the possibility of establishing Jeru-salem as the capital of two peoples, with Brussels as a source of inspiration. Itstrived to be a facilitator between Israel and the Arab world, organisingsessions which brought Palestinian and Israeli academics to the same table(Coolsaet, 2008).In the years following Mr Claes’s term, Belgium focused less on bilateraldiplomacy and personal relations, and more on highlighting international lawas a stabilizer of international relations. Minister of Foreign Affairs CharlesMichel and Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt were staunch proponents of an‘ethical diplomacy’. This was most obvious during the US-led war againstIraq, which Belgium condemned as a unilateral act. It feared that if greatpowers acted outside the framework of the UN, this would entail global insta-bility, of which smaller powers would be the first victims. After Belgium’soutright condemnation of the US’ unilateral policy, Belgian relations with boththe US and Israel became more strained (Coolsaet, 2013).The relations with Israel were especially tense during the time of the debateon the application of universal jurisdiction in 2002, which would have poten-tially enabled the indictment of former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon inBelgium for his role in the massacres of Sabra and Shatila (Danckaers, 2006).After the weakening of Belgium’s so-called ‘genocide law’, under domestic andinternational pressure, Mr Michel intensified his dialogue with Israel in orderto repair relations. Furthermore, Mr Michel introduced the concept of équidis-tance  , or a balanced approach. This aims at treating both parties equally andallowing the EU to play its mediating role (Senate, 2003). Mr Michelpronounced himself strongly against the suspension of the EU-Israel Associa-tion agreement, despite his earlier calls to review that agreement. (GVA,2002).His successor Karel De Gucht advocated establishing a link betweenIsrael’s respect for international law and upgrading the bilateral relationsbetween the EU and Israel. After the start of the Gaza war in December 2008,he strongly defended freezing the planned upgrade of relations with Israel. As aresponse to the Gaza war and Israel’s lack of commitment to the peace negoti-
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