Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Window or door?

Aug.2, 2006

Window of opportunity,
not a door to imposition

IT WAS always assumed that the Europeans appreciated and respected the realities on the ground in the Middle East more than the Americans, who understood the situation well but feigned away from addressing the root causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict if only because it would not have suited the Israelis.
The Europeans, who have had interaction with the Arabs for many centuries, are also aware that spillovers of any Middle Eastern crisis would hit Europe first and therefore it is incumbent upon them to act in time to protect their interests. However, they were never able to play their rightful assertive role in the Middle East and were always kept on the sidelines by Israel through the US.
Britain, which has traditionally played along with the US, worked from within the European bloc to dissuade it from breaking out of the Washington-imposed confinements and assuming an effective political role in efforts to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Of course, Israel on its own whipped out the Holocaust card against the Europeans whenever it felt they were moving towards asserting themselves or leaning towards a more objective political position vis-a-vis the Middle East.
It is not that European politicians were not aware or did not try to do justice. The European Parliament has gone on record many times warning Israel and demanding that it desist from actions in violation of international conventions and agreements and to accept reason, logic, fairness and justice while dealing with the Arabs. However, those calls remained simple statements since the executive authorities found themselves in impossible situations even if they wanted to translate them into practical action. The result was of course a slow degradation of Europe's credibility in the Middle East although nowhere near the level to which American credibility has gone down over the decades.
As such, it is refreshing — although we wished it came earlier — to hear the European Union's presidency warning that Israel's military offensive in Lebanon would only increase support for Hizbollah and the asssault is "unlikely to bring military success."
Equally importantly, Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, also acknowledged that the credibility of the bloc was on the firing line.
"The EU is the only actor in which they still have some trust and confidence," Tuomioja said. "If we don't live up to expectations, we ... can say goodbye to any serious role the EU can play."
So far so good. The key phrase here is "living up to expectations." There is no ambiguity over what the aggrieved party in the Middle East conflict, the Arabs, expect Europe to play a forceful role in ensuring that international legitimacy and justice would be the basis for a solution to the conflict and peace in the region. The Arabs are not expecting the Europeans to take their side and enforce an Arab version of a solution.
On the other hand, Israel wants the Europeans to either simply stay away — thus leave the ground for only the US — or, if they want to come in at all, apply pressure on the Arabs to accept the Israeli version of a solution.
In the immediate context, the European Union has called several times for a cessation of hostilities in Lebanon. Israel's massacre of Lebanese civilians in Qana on Sunday added a stronger sense of urgency to the calls, but they failed to move the Jewish state. And it is obvious at this point in time that the EU member states are being pulled into forming an international stabilisation force to be deployed on the Lebanese-Israeli border before a ceasefire could go into effect.
Well, there is no questions over the urgent need for a ceasefire and where it takes an international stabilisation force to bring a cessation of hostilities. The question is whether the process is designed to simply disarm Hizbollah and end there. The US says it sees a window of opportunity for a permanent settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict, but when Washington says so one needs to be cautious. That is where the Europeans could come with an effective role.
If the European Union members do want to act to protect their interests, then they should combine their political and economic weights and do not allow individual political interests to dictate common terms. They should ensure that the so-called window of opportunity is not turned into a door through which Israel walks in and imposes its version of a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict. It is a tall order, but that is what the imperatives dictate, given that it is almost certain that the conflict is movinig to a do-or-die stage.