PRAGUE (JTA) – When leaders of the Quartet gather in Lisbon to discuss strategies for Middle East peacemaking, it’s not clear the Europeans will be speaking with one voice.
Thursday’s meeting of the Quartet powers – the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia – will be the first since the appointment of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair as the group’s special envoy to the Middle East and Hamas’ violent takeover of the Gaza Strip last month.
Yet as the representatives gather to discuss ways to curtail corruption in the hastily reassembled Fatah-controlled Palestinian Authority and jump-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the specter of European disunity may scuttle efforts to formulate a clear European and international agenda.
Thursday’s meeting comes just days aftter President Bush, in coordination with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, unveiled a new initiative to jump start the long-dormant peace process. It is not clear exactly what role the Europeans will play in that initiative.
A group of 10 European foreign ministers recently wrote an open letter to Blair calling the Quartet’s “road map” peace plan a failure, urging Israel to make more concessions to the Palestinians and recommending the establishment of an international force to deal with the conflict.
“The road map has failed,” the ministers wrote in their July 9 letter, published in the French daily Le Monde and spearheaded by France. There is a need now to “redefine our objectives,” they wrote.
With major European players such as Italy and Spain signing on, the letter undercuts the efforts of E.U. foreign policy chief Javier Solana to have the 25-country European Union speak as one on the Middle East. The other signers included the foreign ministers of Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Portugal, Malta, Romania and Slovenia.
Observers say the letter, along with the appointment of Blair without consulting Solana, has weakened Solana’s position on Middle East affairs and cast a poor light on the European Union’s peacemaking efforts. Moreover, the letter undercuts European unity on the Middle East, which observers say is key to sending the message that Israel and the Arab states cannot play one European country off another.
“Once again, Europe can’t get its act together on European policy in the Middle East,” said Robin Shepherd, an expert on E.U. foreign policy for Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “The letter makes the E.U. and Solana appear slightly ridiculous.”
Shepherd noted that Germany, in particular, was put off by the letter.
“The Germans are outraged – understandably – by these countries’ behavior, since German Chancellor Angela Merkel just spent months working on an E.U. treaty that calls more or less for an E.U. foreign minister,” he said.
The letter also signals that France, its primary author, may be seeking to reassert its once-held influence on European Middle East policy. It
calls for steps that are in stark contrast to the approach of the Quartet, which embraced the 2003 road map.
“The letter calls for more concessions from Israel and a need to walk softly with Hamas,” Shepherd said. “Is Israel not supposed to mention that Hamas calls for its destruction?”
Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev said this is not the first time such letters have been issued by European leaders eager for peace. But, he said, “they need to understand that the road map has failed so far because the Hamas-led government did not want the road map to succeed.”
The road map at least has a chance, Regev said, with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction in control of the West Bank.
Israel and the Quartet’s strategy has been to isolate Hamas, considered a terrorist group, and support Abbas. If Palestinian standards of living can be raised under Abbas’ regime while Hamas is unable to deliver in Gaza, then more Palestinians likely will support Fatah and its position of acceptance of a peaceful two-state solution to the conflict, the reasoning goes.
Clara Marina O’Donnell, a research fellow at London’s Centre for European Reform, said the letter to Blair demonstrates a widely held view among European leaders that the Quartet’s policy of isolating Hamas has been responsible, at least in part, for the current suffering among the Palestinians, and even Hamas’ military takeover of the Gaza Strip.
“One could say there is a lot of guilt in this letter, and that there is a belief that look, we failed to prevent a crisis, we need to try something else,” she said.
By all accounts, Gaza is teetering on the brink of a humanitarian disaster. Some human rights groups lay the blame on Israel, saying the Jewish state put Gaza in an economic stranglehold by closing its border crossings.
In their letter to Blair, the foreign ministers urged the former British leader to pressure Israel to arrange for the “transfer of all taxes due, the release of the thousands of prisoners who do not have blood on their hands,” as well as “a freeze in new settlements and the evacuation of unauthorized settlements.”
“There are Europeans, like the French, who worry that the isolation of Hamas has led to its further radicalization, encouraging Hamas to turn to Iran for help,” O’Donnell said.
So why did the European foreign ministers not convey their sentiments by way of the European Union?
O’Donnell said France, with its new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, is to blame.
“In the inauguration speech of Sarkozy he mentioned a desire to create a Mediterranean union, and this is the first sign of that policy,” she said.
Shepherd said, “It would not take a conspiracy theorist to say that France is trying to assert its own policy on the Middle East in a very large way with a new president.”
It remains to be seen if U.S. leaders, among them Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is expected to attend the Quartet meeting, will take the letter to Blair seriously.
O’Donnell speculated Rice would simply ignore the European calls for a new approach.
“The E.U. seems to confuse having a policy on an issue to actually solving the crisis,” O’Donnell said.
The initiative launched Monday might go address the signatories’ complaints: Bush calls on Israel to maintain the tax payments and freeze settlements, and Olmert has already released prisoners. However, a critical difference is that Bush – and Israel and Abbas – are determined to keep Hamas isolated for now.
The renewed role for Europe outlined in Bush’s overall vision might also allay some of the European concerns. He emphasized that the European Union, as well as Russia and the United Nations, the other members of the Quartet, were “partners” in making the proposal. He also revived the role of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, led by Norway, a grouping of Arab, Asian and European nations, in raising funds for the Palestinians.