Global Europe

Getting it right in the Middle East

Reflections on Europe’s role in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict

, by Alexander Hoefmans

All the versions of this article: [English] [français]

Getting it right in the Middle East

Heads have once again shaken massively as images of the horrific events in the Middle East have been satellite transmitted to an audience worldwide. Yet another disgraceful notch is added to the battle stick as Hezbollah rockets are fired upon northern Israeli cities and in return the Israeli army descends all hell on the state Lebanon, or is it the other way round? One can hardly be sure these days and yet perception is of crucial importance in addressing any conflict. Some would argue debating the history of a conflict hardly serves policymaking. I beg to differ.

It is uncanny to think that technology nowadays offers a window from which viewers can safely witness such and other atrocities. One would expect the spectatorship, to give the beast a disrespectful name, to create an awareness raising effect - to be regionally interpreted unfortunately - upon the audience, which would in turn stimulate public pressure on policymakers worldwide. If this was the case in the Vietnam War, the limits and abuses of this theory have sadly been proven by the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a mental trench war historically cultivated, exploited and even partly ignored.

Indeed, the late eminent Palestinian intellectual Edward W. Said exposed throughout his lifetime the misrepresentation of the Palestinian cause and fulminated against what he called the coalescence between western liberalism and the Zionist representation of the state of affairs as well as against the double standards in the Western championing of human rights globally.

Turning to the other side of the coin, one cannot ignore the rationale that has evolved within the Israeli government, army and society in their quest to establish and maintain a Jewish national home and the subsequent policies, which serve as foundations for that objective, as described for example Ahron Bregman in his book ‘Israel’s Wars’, a laden title by all means.

True, any expert on conflict resolution will tell you a thorough understanding of the dynamics of a conflict is essential for sustainable peace-building. This includes the historical facts and figures, knowledge of peace-building tools as well as implication of all actors and stakeholders. Any solution must be perceived by the conflicting parties as fair and just in order to sustain a lasting peace. And what is politically acceptable is checked less on its viability to stand the test of time but rather the test of history.

History and perception are not only intertwined in an isolated way in conflict-resolution models, driven by the primary conflicting parties. They are linked to and often even emanate from “peripheral stakeholders”. Europe and the United States come to mind even if it seems an injustice to pass up on the neighbouring Arab countries.

European policy on the Middle East may well be the litmus test of the current common EU foreign policymaking...

European policy on the Middle East may well be the litmus test of the current common EU foreign policymaking (developing towards a potential future single European foreign policymaking?). Indeed, it holds the most vicious characteristics possibly facing foreign policymaking in general as well as within the EU. The division between the member states, the strains on the transatlantic alliance, nuclear proliferation of weapons, terrorism, and energy supply security and not in the least the human dimension of the Middle Eastern society and their relations to the West. One can see why getting it right in the Middle East is no stroll in the park.

And yet where the needs are highest, Europe fails the most. Historically most engaged in the Middle East and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict more recently, of all the peripheral stakeholders (the United States only started to side with Israel from the Sixties onwards) Europe is highly solicited and valuable in aiding to broker a deal. While undoubtedly Europe is more present behind the scenes diplomatically than most of us would presume, even the former European Commissioner for External Relations, Chris Patten, has had to admit in his recent book ‘Not Quite the Diplomat’ that European policy has not amounted to much, describing it as “a Pavlovian rejection of any course of action that might distance us from the Americans”.

Sadly this line of theory has once again been proven correct when witnessing the latest, utterly embarrassing, outcome of the Rome conference on the latest upsurge of violence and destruction in Lebanon, Israel and Palestine. Could it be that Europe simply has not yet awoken to its potential in foreign policymaking?

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