March 16, 2010 | Wall Street Journal

Memo to Baroness Ashton: Embrace Israel

On the eve of her departure for the Middle East, Baroness Catherine Ashton, Europe's new foreign policy czar, reaffirmed the European Union's long-standing refusal to upgrade its relations with Israel unless Israel first makes sweeping concessions. Supposedly, such concessions would help to quickly achieve a negotiated settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “Our ambition is that they know-because they do-that the solution lies in a negotiated settlement.,” Ms. Ashton told journalists over the weekend. “Our view is that it needs to happen quickly and now, with the opportunity that that affords Israel. . . to be able to enhance the relationships it wants with us in any event for the future.”

Europe's insistence on linking stronger economic and political ties with Israel to a peace settlement is a direct consequence of a European article of foreign policy faith: That the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the region's Gordian knot, and that Israel is largely to blame for the failure to reach a comprehensive solution.

Predictably, Ms. Ashton's tour of the Middle East is focusing on advancing peace between Israelis and Palestinians-cajoling Israel to indulge the Palestinian Authority, and convincing Arab regimes to do their share. But this attitude reflects a shocking double standard in the way the EU conducts its relations with Israel and the Arab countries. It also fails to serve Europe's interests in the region.

By prioritizing the Palestinian-Israeli dispute over other regional goals, the EU is allowing its interests to be at the mercy of the Palestinians' intramural power contests and Israeli's coalition politics, not to mention Arab tyrants and the greater radical Islam movement.

With tunnel-vision for a Palestinian-Israeli solution, Europe is bowing to supposedly moderate Arab regimes that are recalcitrant about promoting democracy, strengthening civil society, fighting corruption, and improving governance. As they are no doubt telling Ms. Ashton during her first visit to the region, they are prepared to help in the quest for a negotiated Palestinian-Israel solution, but in exchange, Europe must forgo its demands for change inside their own societies. Perhaps that's why, in Ms. Ashton's speech in Cairo on Monday, she contented herself with pressing Hosni Mubarak's repressive autocracy to join efforts to “move from conflict management to conflict resolution” between Israelis and Palestinians. Meanwhile, she made no mention of the woes suffered by more than 80 million Egyptians, not once uttering the words “rights,” “governance,” or “democracy.”

And so it goes: Authoritarian Arab regimes whose policies run contrary to European interests and values get off the hook, while Israel-a democracy and Europe's best economic partner in the area-stays in the doghouse.

Europe can't afford to delay addressing other pressing regional problems because of a stalled Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement. Good governance and respect for human rights in the Maghreb or the Levant are not impeded by the Palestinian-Israeli dispute. Indeed, respectable leadership at home is something the EU should require of its Arab interlocutors in exchange for economic aid, direct investment, and political partnerships. It is risible to use the absence of Palestinian statehood as a pretext to disregard most Arab countries' need for internal reforms, and to ignore their unfulfilled commitments with the EU Association Agreements.

Similarly, denying Israel an upgrade in relations makes little sense. Europe and Israel share values and interests: Israel is a representative democracy, it is an open society, it has a vibrant free press, and it is a robust economy with much to offer Europe thanks to its dynamic, innovative, high-tech-oriented business environment. Israel is an island of stability in a sea of confusion, and an oasis of freedom in the authoritarian desert the Middle East continues to be. Seeking a closer political and economic relationship with Israel thus makes perfect sense and should not be made hostage to a peace process that for almost 10 years now has shown few signs of progress anyway.

Ms. Ashton can rectify the situation by recognizing that regional challenges are quite distinct from the peace process. She could also assert their urgency for many Middle Eastern regimes, and stress that a lack of progress on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process should not become an excuse for dawdling with advancement on other tracks. The EU should rebalance its priorities in the Middle East, and rate developments in other fields at least as high as progress between Israel and Palestine.

Decoupling that conflict from other regional challenges does not mean relegating peacemaking to a secondary role; it means refusing to let vital European interests become hostage to it, and demanding that Arab regimes stop using the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a pretext for procrastination. It means recognizing that some regional challenges exist quite independently of Israel's existence, and the non-existence of a Palestinian state.

It also means the EU could free itself to upgrade ties with Israel, independent of its troubles with the Palestinians. Clearly, there is much to be gained in an ever-closer relation between Brussels and Jerusalem, and Israel's experience in such disparate fields as homeland security and renewable energy technologies makes closer cooperation particularly desirable from a European standpoint.

Finally, an upgraded political relationship would strengthen, not weaken, Europe's ability to influence Israeli thinking and acting, not least by redressing the current imbalance in Europe's attitude to the region. There is Europe's real chance to help, not hamper, progress for peace.

Mr. Ottolenghi is a senior fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, and the author of “Under a Mushroom Cloud: Europe, Iran and the Bomb” (Profile Books, 2009).