Rarely has European politics achieved such a glaring failure as the attempt to end the war in Gaza. Instead of speaking with a single voice, the EU has presented itself as a raggle-taggle band of diverging approaches, says the Middle East expert Michael Lüders
Who hasn't packed their diplomatic passport and set off for the Middle East? Starting with an EU delegation led by the Czech foreign minister Karel Schwarzenberg, who has made no bones of his less than balanced position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In parallel, France's Sarkozy headed for Damascus and Egypt, working on the principle of l'Europe, c'est moi.
Then Tony Blair, who toured the region in the name of the Middle East Quartet, and last but not least Germany's foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier. None of them have made the slightest bit of difference.
Lack of political pressure
Instead of speaking with a single voice, instead of filling the existing power vacuum in a constructive way until Obama steps into his post as US president, the EU has presented itself as a raggle-taggle band of diverging approaches. This is not the way to build up political pressure.
There are institutional reasons behind this cacophony. As long as the EU has no constitution, a European foreign minister and a joint security policy remain mere utopias. It's not only in Gaza that the Europeans have had to admit abject failure. The reactions to the war in Georgia last summer and the issue of recognition for Kosovo have disclosed deep-seated differences of opinion within Europe. National egotism and ideological clashes are stronger than the desire for unity.
In the case of Israel, there is an additional factor. No European state, and least of all Germany, is prepared to make demands on Tel Aviv. This has to do with the Holocaust, but also with the close relations between Israel and the USA.
Hamas – a collective persona non grata
Whatever these two allies consider right is generally adopted and adhered to in Brussels. Hamas is a prime example: once Tel Aviv and Washington had refused to recognise the religious nationalists' clear election victory three years ago, the EU promptly followed suit. Hamas thus became a collective persona non grata, sent to political Coventry.
At the same time, the EU avoided placing any pressure on Israel to ensure food, energy and medical deliveries to Gaza. Brussels was content to repeat the mantra that Hamas must first acknowledge Israel's right to existence.
Neither the expulsion of the Palestinians during the foundation of the Israeli state in 1948 nor the continued occupation and settlement colonialism, neither Israel's regular violations of UN Security Council resolutions nor the approximately 11,000 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli prisons, most of whom have never seen a judge, not even the systematic destruction of the Palestinian infrastructure – mainly constructed using EU funds – in the West Bank in 2002 and now in Gaza have ever elicited significant reactions in Brussels. To say nothing of prompting Europe to issue the Israeli government with a bill for the destruction it has wrought.
The only demands the EU makes are on the Palestinian side; never on the Israelis. The German foreign minister's recent trip to the Middle East was no exception. Steinmeier sees the solution to the crisis solely in stopping arms smuggling into Gaza through the existing tunnels.
That, he has said, is the prerequisite for ending Hamas' rocket launches against Israel. Neither Berlin nor Brussels have ever yet addressed the questions of opening the borders of the Gaza Strip, of an end to the Israeli blockade, of political perspectives and security for the Palestinians as well.
Mediation instead of taking sides
A constructive European policy should mediate, not take sides for one party. It goes without saying that Israel's security needs must be taken seriously. They must not, however, become an alibi for a policy of settlement and occupation, which in the cold light of day demands unconditional capitulation from the Palestinians. Demonising Hamas may be popular – but it does not help matters. Who should sign a peace treaty for the Gaza Strip if not Hamas?
The Europeans would do well to demand that Hamas acknowledges Israel's right to existence, but in return they should require that Israel recognise a Palestinian state's right to exist. In 2002 and 2007 the Arab League offered to normalise relations with Israel. In return, the country would have to evacuate all territory occupied in 1967. Why not take up this offer as a starting point?
Dead end for the peace process?
It is clear there has no longer been a peace process in the Middle East to speak of since Yitzhak Rabin's murder in November 1995, or certainly nothing more than rhetoric. In its place, the Europeans have allowed themselves to be tied into US-Israeli initiatives such as the Road Map or the Middle East Quartet, neither of which has made the slightest progress, as they have no sanction mechanisms at their disposal.
This policy is wrong, abandoning those Israelis and Palestinians who are willing to live together in peace on the basis of equal rights and mutual respect.
Intervening in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a mediator is not a question of morals and ethics, but of safeguarding Europe's own interests. Some twelve million Muslims live in western Europe, and many of them support the cause of the people in Gaza. The longer the crisis in the Middle East continues, the more frequently it will be fought out in Europe – be it in the form of ethnic and religious conflicts between Jews and Muslims or as a terrorist threat.
At the same time, Teheran profits from the growing outrage in the Arab Islamic world, the gulf – perceived as intolerable – between the West's promises of freedom on the one hand and the reality of western power politics on the other, at the cost of many thousands of lives. In Iraq and Afghanistan, in Lebanon, in the West Bank and now in Gaza.
The Israeli writer David Grossmann believes that the Israelis and Palestinians have three to five years at the most to find a solution for peace. If they fail, he has said, there is a threat of clan societies with gang-like structures developing on both sides, comparable to the situation in Iraq. And that can be in nobody's interest.
© Qantara.de 2009
Dr. Michael Lüders spent many years as the Middle East correspondent of the weekly newspaper DIE ZEIT. Now a consultant for business and politics, a journalist and a writer, he lives in Berlin.
Translated from the German by Katy Derbyshire