Sunday, June 5, 2011

Encouraging European Move

By Musa Keilani
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 05/06/2011 

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe suggested on Thursday that his country could host a Middle East peace conference before the end of July to help relaunch stalled negotiations.

But the Arabs still believe in what President Barack Obama said in his Cairo speech, which is that he is committed to a fair and just solution to the Palestinian cause. He expressed his commitment as part of turning a new page of friendship with the Arabs. But the United States is acting like a cook dominating the kitchen but not really cooking. The worst part is that it would not agree to leave the kitchen and allow anyone else to cook either.

That is precisely what is happening in the Middle East. The US is not willing to cook, or it is unable to cook because of domestic imperatives - the impact of AIPAC on the 2012 elections and other reasons.

Washington, in its current geopolitical coordinates, cannot find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and it would not allow anyone else, Europe, for instance, to assume a higher profile by finding one.

For their part, the Europeans believe their long association with the Middle East makes them better qualified to address the Arab-Israeli conflict. They resent the fact that they are shut out of the effort to solve the conflict, if only because the US wants to protect its “strategic” partner in the Middle East.

We have known this for a long time, of course. Since the launch of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations in late 1991, at an international conference in Madrid, the Europeans have been trying to assume a stronger role in the process. However, the US kept them at arm’s length and moved in swiftly to cut off any European country seen to make an effort for an influential role in Arab-Israeli peace making.

At the same time, the US always wanted the Europeans (and Japan) to bankroll whatever agreements were signed between Israelis and Palestinians, starting with the 1993 interim Oslo accord and agreements that were associated with it.

Naturally, the Europeans were angry, and are still upset, that they have been continually denied a higher profile role in Middle East peace making.

Two months ago, Washington shut out a European Union initiative that would have had the international Quartet issue the basis for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement in order to encourage the two sides to resume negotiations. No, said Washington, there is no need for such an initiative since Obama was working on a new strategy for peace in the Middle East. But we heard no such strategy in his famous address on television or comments to the media after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or his speech before the American-Israeli Public Affairs Committee last month.

Of course, he did make it clear that the US position is that the frontlines that Israel held at the time of the 1967 war should be the starting point for peace negotiations and that an agreement should of course be subject to negotiated territorial exchange.

Welcome as it is, the reaffirmation did not offer any strategy for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations (not to mention that Netanyahu rejected the reference to the 1967 lines and went on to berate Obama for referring to those borders). And now Washington is non-committal or even indifferent to a French initiative.

Juppe described the current stalemate between Israel and the Palestinians as “untenable” and said France was willing to turn a July meeting of international donors into a broader peace conference. He affirmed that the French initiative is based on Obama’s speech last month referring to the 1967 borders. But the main difference, according to Juppe, is that while Obama stressed Israel’s security, France is interested in “security for both states”.

The French proposal requires both sides to resolve the two issues of Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees within a year. Washington is not exactly impressed by the French idea.

“The ultimate goal is to get them (Israelis and Palestinians) back to the negotiating table,” State Department deputy spokesman Mark Toner told reporters when asked if there was room for a French initiative.

“And we’re looking at a variety of ways to do that,” Toner said.

Still, without directly naming the French proposal, Toner said: “I am not necessarily dismissing it.”

Well, Toner overlooked something with his reference to “the ultimate goal”. The ultimate goal, as we understand it, is to have a fair and just peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians and thereafter between Israel and the broader Arab world.

Toner’s comments are not dismissing the French initiative but rather picking up from it and exploring possibilities of resuming peace talks.

The US is protecting Israeli interests by keeping Europe, and indeed Russia, as far away as possible from the “peace process” that Washington insists still exists in the Middle East. It knows well that without direct American protection Israel would come under immense pressure from the Europeans to meet the minimum requirements for peace, which Israel is not willing to meet.

The problem with the Palestinians is that they are still tied down by a feeling that the US will do what it takes to finalise a peace agreement when the time comes. That is a misguided belief. If anything, the Palestinians would find themselves under heavy American pressure to accept whatever Israel is willing to offer them in a “final” agreement that would be offered to them on a take-it-or-leave-it basis.

One positive fallout of the apparent US rejection of European ideas for peace is that it might encourage some European countries to take a more independent position, which could manifest itself by recognising the state of Palestine when the Palestinian leadership finds it fit to declare it in September 2011 at the United Nations session.

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