The Struggle over the Middle East:Confronting European and US Policy in the Region

Posted in Broader Middle East | 04-Nov-04 | Author: Manuela Paraipan

Manuela Paraipan is WSN Correspondent "Broader Middle East"

The United States and Europe see the Middle East region through different lenses and accordingly, their policies toward the Middle East are different yet bound by similar interests. The US is considered to be a hegemonic power (meaning that US power has deeply increased since the end of the Cold War and is now capable of imposing rules on other states and on the political system as a whole) just as some European countries such as France and Britain were considered some decades ago. Nevertheless, it is true for both European countries and the United States that as former and present hegemonic powers they do not have friends, only interests, or better said friends bound by the same interests. I will take a deeper look at European and US relations to countries in the Middle East and how these relations influence the political and security status of the region.

In Europe, the Middle East turmoil is seen as being greatly influenced by the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. Once this conflict has ended the international community can start to help the Palestinian Arabs rebuild their economic, social and political structures, and Israel will finally be able to enjoy and take advantage of its democratic regime. This conflict began some fifty years ago and we have yet to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Over the years, there have been some serious European and American attempts to ease tensions and a few albeit rather shallow attempts by Arab countries to find a reasonable settlement for both parties.

As many have suggested in the past, an economic boost may reduce violence in the occupied territories and encourage the peace process. As a consequence of this thinking, Europe has given substantial amounts of money to the Palestinian Authority to develop the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Surprisingly, only a small percentage has been used for social, educational or economic development plans. Most of this money was spent on supplying the Fatah and Hamas radical organizations with weapons to fight against Israel. In addition, the money that was used in a proper manner did not do much to help the Palestinians. Every time the Palestinians attack Israeli civilians or army troops, Israel’s policy is to retaliate. Due to this policy, roads, factories and water mains that were built with European money were destroyed. Under these circumstances, it is hard to convince donor states to continue their financial support of Palestine. Although it can be said that Israel’s policies are a direct result of provocation, Israel has compromised the good work that has been done for the purpose of giving Palestinians a reason to live instead of blowing themselves up in Israeli locations. It is a vicious circle in which no one is wiling to be the first to stop.

With regard to Israel's domestic policy toward the occupied territories, growing insecurity has pushed the Jewish state to rely more upon its military power than on a diplomatic dialogue with the Palestinian Authority – which is almost an impossible dialogue due to the fact that Palestinians have more than one leader: They have Yasser Arafat the PA Chairman, the leaders of Hamas, Fatah and others who rule in the territories. In light of this reality, Israel decided to build a fence to separate Israel from the Gaza Strip in the first phase and then the West Bank, too. The majority of Israelis agreed that while peace with this generation of Palestinian leaders is unlikely to happen, separation from them is essential and favorable for both sides. On a social level, Jewish people are more secure and Palestinian youth are prevented from taking their own lives. On the political level, this fence has accelerated the withdrawal of the Israeli army from the Gaza Strip. Many people suspect - especially among moderate Israelis and in the Arab community - that Prime Minister Sharon hopes that a unilateral pullback from Gaza will give him more freedom of action in the occupied West Bank, which is strategically much more important than Gaza.

Israel's foreign policy and its close relationship to the United States have encouraged Arab countries to rally around the Palestinian cause. The problem is that Arab leaders are doing virtually nothing to help solve the conflict – it is more convenient and easier to use the Palestinian issue when bargaining for their own interests with the United States or Europe. As these alliances are reinforced, the gap between the United States and Arab states is inevitably deepening. In order to work to close this gap or prevent a leadership vacuum, Europe is interested and willing to step in and act as a dynamic partner that takes meaningful actions.

The international community's solution for mediating in the conflict came in the form of a "Quartet" - the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations. The US if the only mediator that can influence Israeli policy, but its influence is also limited. It can come with suggestions for Israel to take into consideration, but at the end of the day it will be the Israeli government that decides what it has to do and what actions should taken. Bluntly put, this is a frustrating situation for the European powers. Europe has always favored a two-state solution. However, the unilateral steps taken by Sharon’s government did not come across as the best possible solution because the Quartet was not consulted. The Quartet exists to enforce the Road Map peace plan, but it is impossible for the international community to take part in any plan since Israel promotes a policy of unilateral steps. Still, Europe sustains Ariel Sharon’s plan – having in mind that it is better to see some movement toward the aim of having two states for two peoples, than no movement at all. Even if the Israeli army totally withdraws from Gaza, there are few conditions that must be fulfilled in order to establish a Palestinian state. The Gaza region will need access to the port and airport, access to the water supply and the necessary administrative infrastructure to connect it with the West Bank. Without connection between these two regions, there cannot be a state. Moreover, there is an important precondition that concerns the security of the region. In a conflict environment, there is no real chance to put the basis of a nation. As for security demands, the Europeans see the role of Egypt as crucial in securing the southern border of Gaza. Despite having always been suspicious of the traditional Egyptian role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon also seems to be interested in Egypt’s support. In the eyes of the Arab world, Egypt’s role is a delicate one: First, it must respond to Israel’s security needs on the border and secondly, it must help the Palestinian Authority rehabilitate its security forces so that the Road Map peace process can be further implemented.

Theoretical plans collide with reality; and the reality is that Palestine has too many leaders and it is questionable whether their goal is to have a state or to continue their revolution. Prime Minister Sharon restricted Arafat’s liberty of movement to his compound in the West Bank and refused to consider him an eligible dialogue partner. The Palestinians believe that Arafat’s health deteriorated because of his confinement in Ramallah for nearly 3 years. Due to his poor health, the Israeli government allowed the PA Chairman to travel to France in order to get proper medical treatment for his yet undisclosed illness. For Palestinians around the world, Yasser Arafat is the symbol of their decades of struggle to build a sovereign Palestinian state; to others he is the man who in Oslo refused Israel’s two-state solution offer. Perhaps for the majority of people, though, he is known as a man with a deep revolutionary instinct.

For years, Arafat refused to name his successor to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. This may bring a gloomy scenario of internal struggle for power inside the occupied territories. However, the only viable solution is to hold elections to fully legitimize a new Palestinian leadership. On the foundation of elections, reform talks can move to the next step of an agreement to disarm the radical militias. This step, if taken, will decrease the level of insecurity in Israel and in the occupied territories. An interim government led by Ahmed Qureia, the present Palestinian Prime Minister, might gain the Palestinians' confidence and votes. Radical groups such as Hamas, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Fatah gained a lot of public favor through their aggressive rhetoric and violent actions against the Israelis. Therefore, it would be likely to see members of these groups being part of the new Palestinian leadership. Prime Minister Sharon’s government should be prepared to negotiate with whomever emerges, even with members of Hamas if the new leader or leaders would be capable of maintaining - at least – a close to normal situation in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. If this is the case, the United States should come and re-affirm its commitment to the Road Map plan and its support for security and stability in the region.

When European leaders criticize Arafat’s bad leadership, they also accuse Israel and the United States of hypocrisy. The leaders of France and Germany, countries that are part of the Euro3 group together with Great Britain, wonder if the US can be an honest mediator in the Palestinian/Israeli conflict if the Bush administration consistently supports Ariel Sharon’s policies. Now that George W. Bush has been re-elected President, his policy of spreading democracy throughout the world is likely to become more dynamic and to produce increased dissatisfaction in the Arab world. The real challenge for President Bush in his second term is to have a less militaristic and unilateral policy in the region.

European frustration is rising not only because Israel refuses to deal with the Quartet, but also because the US - which has at least nominally supported the establishment of the Quartet - has not insisted that Israel deal with it. It is clear for European leaders that they have no choice but to go along with and provide economic support for whatever the US and Israel decide with regard to the Gaza and West Bank withdrawal plan and its timing. Still, they have difficulty in understanding why the Bush administration does not seem to take the Road Map plan more seriously. Europeans are well aware that the EU will be expected to finance important aspects of the establishment of Gaza as an independent entity, so this is one more reason for them to insist to be taken into consideration when decisions are made.

Since its birth, the European Union has emphasized commercial relations with the Arab world rather than the need for political reform. Recently, this policy has changed due to security and social concerns. In recent years, a closer economic cooperation with the EU depends upon the economic capabilities of the respective countries, but also on aspects concerning good governance, the respect for human rights and the democratization level. Nevertheless, the policy of the EU is not yet a coherent, single one. As a consequence, it is better to be partners with countries such as Britain, France and Germany than to work as partners with the United States, the Arab world and Israel. The EU enlargement to 25 members (May 2004) has further complicated the picture. It has made the conflict within the EU over its future direction even more compelling for the member states. It has also brought to the EU several Central European countries that are more likely to be favorably disposed to US. policy approaches, thus deepening the differences within the EU.

If the United States is pushing its crusade to bring democratization to the Middle East, Europeans leaders believe that only when the Palestinian/ Israeli conflict has been solved will it be possible to stabilize the whole region and introduce democracy. Europeans and Americans have different perspectives on the process of bringing democracy to the region – while it is true that there are ways to encourage political pluralism, this may not bring a full democratic process to one a country or another. There are certain stages that the Muslim countries - such as the monarchies from the Gulf - will probably experience before enjoying a similar political practice as in the US or Europe. For some, the rise of radical Islamism in the Arab world is a consequence of a weak economic system while for the others, it is merely a return to the only identity shared by Egyptian Arabs, Saudi Arabs and Iraqi Arabs – and that is their religious affiliation to Islam.

Regarding Iraq, Washington should continue its talks with the main European leaders and the Iraqi interim government on what they can do in practical terms to assist the reconstruction of the country. Most European countries cannot send military troops to replace the US ones, but they can actively offer assistance with institutional, social and economic aspects. An Iraq run by radicals would be another Afghanistan under the Taliban’s rule and that would have a dramatic impact on the whole region.

France and Germany would like to see the Syrians reconsider their policy towards Lebanon and help control the Palestinian radical groups that are based in refugee camps inside the country. The SALSRA (Syrian Accountability and Lebanese Sovereignty Restoration Act) is one of the key documents that were passed last year, through both the US House of Representatives and the US Senate. If some believe that it is a ‘toothless’ law, the recent position of the US demonstrates the opposite. The United Nations Security Council has adopted Resolution 1559 that calls for the Syrian regime to pull its troops from Lebanon and stop interfering in Lebanese internal affairs. It also calls for ‘the disbanding and disarmament of all Lebanese and non-Lebanese militias.’ Although Resolution 1559 has created rumors and anxiety in Lebanon, it did not stop Syria from exercising its influence in Lebanon by extending the term of President Lahoud for 3 more years. The consequence is that in less than 6 weeks, France and the US have introduced a new UN resolution that urges Syria to withdraw all troops from Lebanon and calls for Secretary General Kofi Annan to report on the withdrawal progress once every 3 months. If this UN resolution does not change Syria’s policy towards Lebanon, the United States has discussed the possibility of enforcing section 3 (A) (ii) of the Executive Order of SALSRA which states that any person or entity - Syrian, Lebanese, American or otherwise - that is or has been significantly contributing to the Syrian occupation of Lebanon is subject to a total freeze on whatever American assets that person or entity has. This proposal is not yet a law, but it has the chance of becoming one. However, little change can be expected in Lebanon as long as the Israel/Palestine dispute remains unsolved and the Syrian policy unchanged.

In the last months, Iran’s quest for nuclear fuel became a priority for Europe and the United States. If Iran were to go nuclear, it would affect the whole region. Other Arab countries that have the necessary financial means would start their own search for nuclear technology. Last fall, the Europeans stepped in and negotiated a deal with Tehran over its nuclear program. It was an excellent agreement, under which Iran pledged to keep its nuclear program transparent and to allow inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency. The only problem is that Iran is no longer willing to respect the agreement. Under these conditions, it is hard to believe that Iran would respect any other agreement that affects its interest in joining the club of nuclear powers. On the other hand is Israel, a country that has long perceived Iran as a threat. If Israel is convinced that Iran is going down this road, unhindered by UN, European or US sanctions, it is likely to take unilateral action as it did when it bombed Iraq's nuclear reactor in 1981. The worst policy for Europe and the United States would be to do nothing and allow Iran to become a de facto nuclear power sometime in the near future. Also important are the concessions the United States and Europe would be willing to give Iran, if the regime in Tehran decides to abandon its nuclear quest and end its direct support for terrorism. The list should be generous and include lifting US economic sanctions; also, Iran should be recognized as a leading power in the region and be accepted as a partner in the war against terror. It is wiser to have Iran as a partner than as an enemy.

The United States and Europe need to have shared views on the Saudi Kingdom’s present and future prospects. The Saudis should reshape their policy in order to respond to the terrorist threat in a competent manner and they should reconsider the Kingdom’s role in the region. A political crisis in Saudi Arabia would most likely influence the oil price. The European economy at large as well as the US one will be deeply affected by a potential period of unsettled policy in the Kingdom. Therefore, such a political course should be prevented by offering the Saudis assistance in any way they may need it.

Both Europe and America should be aware of the issues they will be confronted with in the near future, like the rising insurgency from Iraq, Iran’s quest for nuclear fuel, Syria’s interest to maintain Lebanon as its satellite country, the tensions caused by Prime Minister Sharon’s unilateral policy and probably the most demanding and important issue - the confrontation between the West and terrorism. These problems will not go away, and neither the US nor Europe can deal with them alone.

The challenges for Europe are to:

  • Establish a coherent domestic and foreign policy within the European Union;
  • Assume more responsibility in regard to Iraq’s reconstruction in particular, and be more actively engaged in the reform of the region as a whole;
  • Develop its partnership with the United States;

The challenges for President George W. Bush in his second term are:

  • to restore America’s reputation as a fair arbiter of world affairs;
  • to lead a multilateralism policy – pay more attention to its allies and friends and engage them in a real, constant dialogue;
  • to understand the widely spread perception in some European countries and in the Arab world that America is ruling the world accordingly to its own narrow interests and that this will eventually undermine the international support the US needs in Iraq and everywhere else in the world;
  • to remember that his role as President of the United States is not only to be the Commander in Chief, but also to maintain international diplomacy as its chief diplomat;
  • bring some changes to domestic civil liberties, jobs, education and healthcare policy, and to his administration's foreign policy in Iraq, Iran, Saudi Arabia and in Israel’s conflict with Palestine;
  • to remember that US foreign policy affects the world and therefore, President Bush's responsibility is not only towards his own people, but also towards the world’s nations.