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Euro-Diplomacy in the Middle East

Is Europe a vital missing element in the Middle East peace negotiations?

April 12, 2002

Is Europe a vital missing element in the Middle East peace negotiations?

At first glance, the Middle East conflict is yet another illustration of what has become a common concept in global politics. The formula is simple: When it comes to serious foreign policy issues, the United States is the key — and European diplomats stand on the side, impotent.

From Africa to China to Russia, Europe’s role has become marginal. At best, it often appears that the Europeans mop up after the Americans. At worst, Europe has reinforced its reputation for feebleness by refusing to take decisive steps to solve political dilemmas — such as in Bosnia.

Since the 1993 Oslo Accords, the United States has dominated the Middle East peace process. Although Norway provided the venue, Europeans played strictly a supporting role — funneling aid to the Palestinian authority, but not much else.

All through the ups and downs of the negotiations, all Middle Eastern parties turned to Washington when things got tough. And they are still doing so today.

But a closer look suggests that Washington — and even Jerusalem — are missing Europe’s possible role in solving the entire Middle East problem. How?

Start with the almost irrefutable fact that just about everyone — except the Israelis and the Palestinians — agrees on what will constitute a solution to the conflict. Each side must make major sacrifices — giving up settlements in Israel’s case and the “right to return” for the Palestinian side. Many Palestinians and Israelis also understand that this is where the solution lies. So why is it so difficult to get there?

The answer, of course, is trust. Israelis ask whether a withdrawal will really stop terror — or whether the Palestinians will simply use terror to obtain even more concessions.

After Arafat’s actions at Camp David in 2000 — where he essentially turned down an Israeli offer that encompassed many of the elements necessary to ending hostilities — the Israelis suspect that peace may be impossible.

Meanwhile, the Palestinians closely observe the continued growth of Israeli settlements. Even under a supposedly “working peace,” Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza continued to expand. What would stop them? Not, apparently, negotiation. Why trust the Israelis under such conditions?

What is needed to solve the problem are outside parties that can deliver the goods to each side. To the Israelis, that means peace and recognition. For the Palestinians, thir requires the removal of settlements and the creation of their own state.

And that is precisely where the United States gets itself in trouble. With its substantial support and funding for Israel, the United States should have earned sufficient political capital to deliver at least a freeze on settlements. But, although the United States has consistently opposed the settlements officially, successive U.S. presidents have not put serious pressure on Israel to actually stop them.

This is partially for domestic political reasons. The U.S. has always hoped that Israelis, living in an open, democratic society, would figure out that the cost of the settlements was too high. It is also because the United States had little leverage over the Palestinians.

This means that there is nothing that the United States can deliver in return for obtaining an Israeli rollback of the settlements. What is needed in this situation is another player with some leverage over the Palestinians — and some credibility.

Enter Europe. The Europeans have always been friendlier to the Palestinian cause than the United States. Europe recognized the PLO in the 1970s — and talked with it in the 1980s when official U.S. policy ruled out such discussions. As a result, Europe should have the necessary political capital with the Palestinians to bridge the gap.

In essence, a two-pronged strategy is necessary. The United States should undertake to deliver the Israelis — and exert strong pressure on Israel to stop expanding settlements. The United States should also urge — as a principle of future negotiations — that the existing settlements be disbanded.

But such pressure must be accompanied by strong European coaxing of the Palestinians to renounce terror — and to accept that the “right of return” must be abandoned.

These policies need to be carefully coordinated – and they need to be public. One of the lessons of Oslo’s failure should be this: that any peace agreement will require the agreement of both Israeli and Palestinian populations.

Such a requirement means that the education of these publics must begin now. High-level U.S. authorities must make a point of getting on Israeli TV and speaking the truth to Israelis. And, also, high-level European authorities should appear on Palestinian and Arab TV and make their own bottom line just as clear.

Notice that there is absolutely no point in doing this the other way around. Europeans lecturing the Israelis — as they have been prone to do recently — is a waste of breath. Given the self-identification of Europeans with the Palestinian cause, Europeans have no credibility in Tel Aviv or Haifa.

As former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bluntly puts it, “This was a Europe that didn’t lift a finger 60 years ago when Jews were being slaughtered. The governments of Europe do not hold much sway in Israel, I’m sorry to say.”

Similarly, U.S. spokesmen have little credibility in Arab circles — especially given the long-standing U.S. support for Israel.

President Bush has little impact when he says that suicide bombers are terrorists and murderers. But if Romano Prodi of the EU were to make this point as forcefully — in Arabic, and to those directly involved in the attacks on Israelis — the impact would be much greater.

Thus, Europeans are the missing link in the peace process. Their marginalization may well have doomed the Oslo accords, since the United States — although it tried — simply could not “do it all”.

Now that the situation in the Middle East has become nothing less than a disaster, perhaps the United States will be willing to admit that they need some help. And perhaps the Europeans will realize that, with some imagination, they need not sit impotently on the sidelines of the conflict.