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After Arafat, Europe Hopes for Role in Reviving Moribund Peace Process

November 12, 2004
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When Miguel Moratinos told a French radio station this week that change is always good news for diplomacy, there was little doubt what he really meant. Moratinos, Spain’s foreign minister and the former senior European Union envoy to the Middle East — and the man seen to be pushing the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, to kick-start a new European peace initiative in the region — was implying that Yasser Arafat’s demise provided just the opportunity the Europeans have been looking for.

Israel and the United States long ago refused to deal with Arafat because of his ties to terrorism, though European leaders by and large continued to regard him as indispensable to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In European eyes, Arafat provided a convenient excuse for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s decision to pursue a unilateral plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip, while disposing of the internationally backed “road map” peace plan.

That plan, which envisages staged Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank and Gaza Strip leading to the creation of a Palestinian state, was sponsored by the European Union, the United Nations, United States and Russia.

The road map’s first stage requires the Palestinians to dismantle terrorist groups, something they refused to do. As violence between Israelis and Palestinians continued, Europeans watched the plan become moribund.

With Arafat’s death, European diplomats no longer see the unilateral nature of Sharon’s Gaza withdrawal as justifiable, and believe Israel should be persuaded to negotiate the withdrawal with a new Palestinian leadership.

Central to such a proposal are elections in the Palestinian territories, last held nine years ago.

Moreover, with hopes rising that the endemic corruption of Arafat’s rule will not survive him, the E.U.’s Dutch presidency last week suggested that Europeans could contribute in other ways as well.

“The E.U. wants to support the Palestinian Authority in four areas: security, institutional reform, elections and economic recovery,” Dutch Foreign Minister Bernard Bot told a meeting of the E.U. Council in Brussels.

Fleshing out those proposals, Solana said that by January 2005, the European Union would put into effect an aid program for the creation of a Palestinian civilian police force “in close cooperation with Egypt and other partners.”

But he warned that it would require “effective action” by the Palestinian Authority to put an end to terrorist activities, reorganize the myriad Palestinian security services and reinforce the powers of the P.A.’s Interior Ministry. The Palestinians agreed to all those steps in the road map, but did not follow through.

While Arafat’s medical condition undoubtedly gave the E.U. plan greater urgency, European minds were also concentrated by their general dismay over President Bush’s re-election.

Nevertheless, Bot also looked to paint that development in a positive light.

“We can now see a window of opportunity. Following the U.S. elections, we want to work with the Americans so that the conflict can be finally resolved,” he said.

Ironically, the E.U.’s embrace of Arafat has had the effect of cutting the Europeans out of the diplomatic scene in recent months, as Israel refused to deal with those European officials who continued to visit Arafat in his Ramallah headquarters. Israel also has considered the Europeans biased toward Palestinian positions in the conflict.

Relations between Israel and the European Union reached a new low in July when all 25 E.U. member states backed a U.N. resolution condemning Israel’s West Bank security barrier.

Israeli Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom issued a strong rebuke when Solana visited Israel shortly after the U.N. vote.

“The E.U. should be engaged in promoting Palestinian reform in Gaza and Ramallah, not Palestinian manipulation in the U.N.,” Shalom told his E.U. counterpart.

Such a view fits in with Israel’s perspective that Europe should pressure the Palestinians to compromise with Israel, while leaving major political initiatives to the Americans.

Yet Israel may find reasons to accept European involvement in a renewed peace process. Israel’s Foreign Ministry recently received reports from its diplomats in Europe warning that Israel has fallen so low in European eyes that it soon could be perceived as a pariah along the lines of apartheid-era South Africa.

For their part, European officials do not want to become irrelevant.

“The E.U. must beware of becoming a theoretical talking shop. Plans for withdrawal from Gaza, the road map and the two-state solution must be genuinely implemented,” Bot said recently.

If the Palestinians do succeed in maintaining calm after Arafat, the principal barrier to implementation of the road map — ongoing terrorist activity — will no longer apply.

And it will mean that the Europeans, too, can expect to be back in the ballpark.

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