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May 23, 2001
Picking up the pieces;
The Case for European Intervention

By Martin Woollacott


Picking up the pieces;
The Case for European Intervention
by Martin Woollacott

The Guardian (London)
May 23, 2001

Europe, Henry Kissinger is supposed to have said, should not be allowed too large a role in the Middle East because its involvement would raise Arab expectations too high. The argument, which European nations have over the years by and large accepted, was that only if Arab and Palestinian hopes were kept at a realistic level and only if there was a single unchallenged arbiter was there a chance that a peace could be made between Arabs and Jews.

This received wisdom surely needs to be examined. The increasingly exclusive American ownership of Middle Eastern diplomacy in recent years has not led to peace but to one of the worst ever confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians. Final negotiations were attempted without adequate preparation at a time when the Palestinians were, thanks to years of disappointment, particularly alienated.

True though it is that the difficulties were large, this was still mismanagement on a grand scale. That the resulting disaster should be followed by a decision, under the new administration, to walk away from the problems the US had helped create was a demonstration of how irresponsible political parties in a super power can be. The impulse to disengage has had to be modified since, but the Bush administration, if left to its own devices, is set to remain a reluctant player in the Middle East.

When it does intervene it is likely to do so to curb excesses of violence and to nudge the parties into some temporary accommodation. Such accommodation will of course be accompanied by gestures toward more fundamental negotiations but as long as Sharon's coalition, or any Israeli government on the right, is in power, these will remain gestures. As a short-term tactic, that is defensible, but as long-term policy it can only lead to new explosions in the future.

It would mean, after all, at best a return to the situation which Palestinians found so onerous before - the continuing presence of Israeli settlers and the Israeli military, with economic life at the mercy of Israeli closures, and political life bedevilled by Israeli security demands and accusations that the Palestinian Authority is back at its job as a puppet regime.

That is why the Europeans need to look ahead. Two terms of Bush could lie before us. This will be, very probably, an America which will lead less but at the same time be unwilling to cede leadership to others. One obvious way to precipitate American engagement, where it is desirable, is to take initiatives which will bring the US, irritated but awakened, back into the policy arena. In a small and not so far very convincing way this is what the European Union has already tried to do with North Korea. In the Middle East, however, Europe is in a potentially powerful position. This is not because the EU could replace the US as the main outside diplomatic actor, since the Israelis trust one and only one country with certain decisions affecting their future. Rather, we are of vital economic and psychological importance to both sides.

The EU has always sustained the Palestinian Authority with aid, and now it is its principal support at a time when Israel has cut off all revenue. Europe is also Israel's principal trade partner, in everything from arms to citrus fruits. You might say that neither side could exist without us, which does not mean that this economic weight can easily be trans lated into pressure in the form of sanctions. But, however limited the signals may be - as with the new moves on the settlement products that Israel illegally exports to the EU under preferential arrangements - they underline Israeli dependency. The message is that what could happen now in a small way could happen in a much bigger way in the future.

At some fundamental level Israel knows it cannot do without Europe, and its need is both economic and cultural. Israel sees itself as part of the community of European democracies which, apart from anything else, contain a significant portion of the diaspora. What Israel has observed, as the conflict worsens, is the movement of public opinion in Europe, the small but significant changes in the language used by governments, and the way in which it has become once again a controversial rather than a respectable associate of the European nations.

Above all, it is now almost a given in Europe that everything beyond the Green Line belongs to the Palestinians. What had been seen as a matter of making peace between two peoples, dividing a territory and creating a state for one of them, is now seen much more simply as a matter of ending an occupation. It is an important conceptual shift that upsets years of euphemisms about what is being given' or offered'. As reality is more objectively perceived by the Europeans, so that reality will, it can be hoped, penetrate Israeli consciousness as well.

The governments of the major European nations, who have never been good in the past at concerting their policies on the Middle East, have an opportunity now to change the chemistry that sustains the crisis. They can do this, in the first instance, simply by advancing the problem up the EU agenda, making it a subject of serious discussion between London, Paris and Berlin. They can do it by turning a harder eye on Israeli policies and, to a lesser extent, on Palestinian actions. They can do it by advancing European solutions, even if the main intention may be to activate the US rather than to rival it diplomatically.

They can do it by plain-speaking and by abandoning the false equivalence of the past, under which Israelis and Palestinians were always criticised in equal measure. Even if the American mediation effort which has followed the Mitchell Report is modestly successful, which is hoping for a lot, there is a pressing need for a forward European policy in the Middle East.