Khaula Saleh spoke to Volker Perthes, Middle East expert and director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs in Berlin, and asked him about the political significance of the Mediterranean Union founded in Paris by the EU and the 18 littoral states of the Mediterranean in Europe, north Africa, and the Middle East
The summit to launch the Mediterranean Union was applauded around the world. How do you view this development? Do you think that it will lead to an improvement in co-operation around the Mediterranean?
Volker Perthes: I think it is still too early to take stock at this stage because decisions have yet to be made about individual projects and their implementation. I think that it is good that with the exception of Libya, all littoral states of the Mediterranean and/or members of the European Union took part in this summit. It is also good that there has been a détente in the relations between Syria and Lebanon and Syria and the European Union. This is an important first step without which it would not be possible to launch certain co-operation projects.
The summit to launch the Mediterranean Union would appear first and foremost to mark the end of Syria's international isolation. What effect could this development have on the region and on the nuclear stand-off with Iran.
Perthes: I don't think it will have any immediate effect on the nuclear stand-off with Iran. There is another conflict in the region that is much, much older than the nuclear conflict with Iran, namely the conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbours, which could possibly have taken one – if not two – steps towards a solution at the weekend. If the constructive, serious peace talks between Israel and Syria continue, this will also have positive effects on the negotiations and peace efforts of the Palestinians and the Israelis.
After all, any détente in the region will benefit those in Israel and the Palestinian territories who are working to bring about reconciliation. We saw evidence of this when the Palestinian president, Mahmud Abbas, went to Damascus. And if Syria were to make peace with Israel, it would not be interested in supporting Hamas or the Palestinian branch of Islamic Jihad, or other more radical organisations in the Palestinian territories.
It would appear that progress between Syria and Israel is just as possible as progress in the relations with Lebanon and the European Union. Do you think that it is correct to say that all of this is down to French diplomacy and is, therefore, evidence of what France claims is its leading role in European Middle East and Mediterranean policy-making?
Perthes: French diplomacy did indeed play a role here, as did other players in the region such as the government of Qatar, especially as far as the relations between Syria and Lebanon are concerned. However, the relations and negotiations between Israel and Syria are moderated by Turkey, not by France. I think it is very important that the Turkish government be praised for its intensive and to date apparently successful mediation in this matter.
Do you think that it is evidence of what France claims is its leading role in European Middle East and Mediterranean policy-making?
Perthes: Jacques Chirac was most definite about staking France's claim to a leading policy-making role in this regard and I think that Mr Sarkozy is currently trying to establish a framework for this claim. Whether other European states and the states of the Middle East accept this will depend above all on how effectively France plays its hand. Initially, the French foreign minister thought that he could just hop on a plane to Lebanon, pay a visit to all of the conflicting parties, and leave again with a solution in his "instant diplomacy", in other words. When he handled matters in this way, he was not very successful and so, France's claim to a leading role was not acknowledged.
Do you think it possible that direct negotiations will take place between Syria and Israel in the near future?
Perthes: I think that such direct negotiations must take place soon. It is probable that they will not take place immediately, but that they will wait until an American mediator is ready to attend the negotiations and maybe even to play a leading role. It would also appear as if the Israelis and the Syrians agree that it would be best to wait for the new, the next American administration.
Interview conducted by Khaula Saleh
© Deutsche Welle / Qantara.de 2008
Translated from the German by Aingeal Flanagan