Facing up to uncomfortable realities in the Middle East
European Voice (Link) - Toby Vogel (January 7, 2010)
The proclaimed ambitions of Spain�s foreign minister have caused confusion about EU foreign policy, but typify the challenges it now faces.
Miguel �ngel Moratinos, Spain�s foreign minister, said last month that his country would take up the rotating presidency of the European Union on 1 January �with modesty and discretion.� Herman Van Rompuy, the new permanent president of the European Council, and Catherine Ashton, the EU�s new foreign policy chief, would be in charge of the EU�s relations with the wider world. Moratinos then added that he would work toward the establishment this year of a Palestinian state that could live �in peace and security with Israel.�
In addition to spreading confusion about the roles of the EU�s foreign policy actors, Moratinos�s ambitions for Palestine betray an optimism that borders on delusional. Moratinos, who was the EU�s special envoy to the region in 1996-2003, must be well aware that peace in the Middle East has eluded some of the world�s most capable diplomats since the end of the Cold War. To offer the idea of a Palestinian state without some kind of plan is foolhardy. There is no evidence, alas, of such a plan lying around either in the office of the Arabic-speaking foreign minister of Spain or in the drawers of Ashton�s desk. Moratinos�s comments on a Palestinian state reflect personal enthusiasms rather than diplomatic strategies.
His goal is not radical and it is widely shared: two states � Israel and Palestine � co-existing side by side, in peace, on the territory of former British Palestine. But one of the many frustrations of the seemingly intractable Middle East problem is that the outlines of a settlement are agreed by most mainstream forces in the region and further afield while nobody appears to have any idea of how to get there. Meanwhile, the Islamic radicals of Hamas who run the Gaza Strip, backed by an increasingly aggressive Iran, are busy undermining the two-state solution, and Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel�s right-wing prime minister, appears distinctly uninterested in making peace with the Palestinians.
A year ago, Hamas�s rocket fire on Israel and Israel�s retaliation against Gaza showed how powerless the EU and the rest of the �international community� is on matters involving Israel�s security. The Gaza war was a humiliation for the EU, set back hopes of a settlement and paved the way for Netanyahu�s return to power in February. Barack Obama, the US president, put the conflict at the top of his foreign policy agenda and on his second day in office named George Mitchell, a former senator and experienced peacemaker, as his special envoy to the Middle East. By now, Obama has already reached the point that his predecessors from Jimmy Carter onward reached only toward the end of their time in office � the point where nothing in the Middle East appears to be going their way.
In addition to Moratinos, another Spaniard with a keen interest in the Middle East is Javier Solana. As Ashton�s predecessor, he carved out a niche for himself as the point man on Iran for the entire international community. His departure leaves the position of top trouble-shooter on Iran vacant � for now. On the surface, the complicated question of what to do about Iran�s nuclear ambitions and its defiance of international demands would lend itself to the kind of quiet diplomacy that Ashton seems to favour. But Ashton has not yet revealed her particular interests among international policies, and it is uncertain whether she will take over with Iran where Solana left off. Moreover, Solana�s job was as much about maintaining a minimal consensus among the world�s leading powers as about negotiating with Tehran. That consensus, to the extent that it was ever real, is unlikely to survive the coming months, when even the Obama administration will be forced to acknowledge that its engagement with Iran has failed. The US and the EU will then have to choose whether unilaterally to tighten their sanctions against Iran.
The most effective solution to the Iran question would be regime-change � driven by Iran�s restless youth, not US tanks or covert operations. The events of the past few weeks inside the country have brought that possibility one step closer. But they also raise a dilemma for the EU and the US. It would be disturbing to let Iran get away with its suspected weapons programme. But tougher sanctions, currently being prepared by US and European diplomats, are likely to strengthen the hand of the clerical regime in its brutal clamp-down on internal dissent. To balance these two pressures � the political need for stricter sanctions and the likely negative impact on Iran�s domestic situation � will be one of the toughest questions facing international policymakers in the coming months. In the end, it is hard to imagine Ashton talking to Iran�s brutish regime while it is throwing dissenters into the torture chambers � which leaves the current approach in tatters.
On Palestine, the EU has specialised in slightly tougher rhetoric on Israel while in reality following the lead of the US. It will do much the same on Iran and take its cue from Washington. Moratinos would do well to tailor his public pronouncements to these uncomfortable realities. Force of personality alone will not solve the problems � as Tony Blair, the international Middle East envoy, might testify, were he not so invisible.