Wednesday, September 03, 2008

The Arab-Israeli conflict: France's dashed hopes

by Clara Marina O'Donnell

During a trip to Israel in August, the only optimists I met were French diplomats. The reason for their upbeat mood? Ambitious plans by President Sarkozy for the EU to advance the Middle East peace process – including a controversial proposal that the EU should take the lead in creating an international peacekeeping force which could replace the Israeli army in the West Bank as part of a peace deal. But in the current inauspicious environment, can France, which currently holds the EU presidency, really help to move things forward and allow the EU to play a bigger role in the peace process?

Probably not. Already, it looks as if the French plans are becoming victims of circumstance. The Gymnich, an informal meeting of EU foreign ministers, that will take place on September 5th and 6th, had been flagged up as vital in developing a new EU strategy. The EU was to reflect on ways it could increase its support for the peace process, including the offer of new security guarantees to Israel. But the Georgian war has changed EU priorities, and talks on the Middle East have been seriously scaled down.

But even if the EU’s agenda had not been thrown off course, the situation in Israel and the Palestinian territories is so bad that there is little Europe can do to assist the current peace process. The prospects for the US-sponsored Annapolis peace effort, always bleak, have almost entirely faded. With just over three months to the December deadline for a deal, not only are Palestinians still divided and feuding, but Israel has also plunged into a political crisis. Prime Minister Olmert, the main force behind the peace talks, has been forced to resign over corruption allegations. In the current environment, any efforts by the EU, a minor player, are condemned to frustration.

Yet Sarkozy’s ideas are interesting. The CER has long argued that the EU should offer more security guarantees to Israel, including peacekeepers, in order to prove its credibility as a valuable partner to Israel, and to strengthen its role in the peace process (‘The EU, Israel and Hamas’, CER working paper, April 2008). So while it might not be possible to debate these ideas at the upcoming Gymnich, and still less put them into practice in the near future, the EU should still reflect on them.

Sarkozy’s general approach to Israel is also interesting. The EU has always found it hard to influence Israel. Two tactics have been tried, both – so far – unsuccessfully. The EU used to voice loud public criticism of Israeli actions it disapproved of, for example the expansion of settlements in the Palestinian territories. But Israel would simply ignore this, and accuse the EU of megaphone diplomacy. More recently, the EU has trodden more softly, in the hope of increasing its influence. Relations have, as a result, significantly improved – but on issues such as settlements the EU is still mostly ignored.

Sarkozy has adopted something of a middle ground approach – ‘tough love’ – with Israel. He presents himself as a true friend of Israel but he is also publicly critical about sensitive issues. His approach seems to have had some success. Despite declaring that settlement activity must stop and that Jerusalem must become a shared capital of Israel and a future Palestinian state, Sarkozy received a standing ovation when he addressed the Israeli parliament in June. And I encountered generally positive assessments of him from local and foreign officials in the region.

France may not be able to deliver the ambitious and radical ideas it was envisaging to strengthen the Middle East peace process (it would be unkind to suggest that scaling back ambitious agendas might be a recurrent theme of the current French administration). Neither has Paris found a magic solution to the EU’s conundrum of how to increase its influence with Israel (the continued growth in settlements over the last year clearly shows the limit of EU influence), but Sarkozy’s new approach does offers a potentially useful path forward for EU-Israel relations.

Clara Marina O'Donnell is a research fellow at the Centre for European Reform.

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