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Towards Peace in the Middle East: Lessons for European Policymakers

Address by Gareth Evans, President, International Crisis Group, to Closing Session, PSE/Socialist Group in the European Parliament Conference on Moving Toward an International Peace Conference for the Middle East, European Parliament, Brussels, 3 July 2007

There was an article in an Australian paper this week by an old diplomatic colleague of mine, who had a number of postings in the Middle East and continues to closely follow events there. He said he had been feeling very unwell recently, but after a lot of prodding and poking and testing, the source of his troubles finally had been diagnosed. His doctors told him that he was suffering from MEDS, or Middle East Depressive Syndrome. This is a condition which is only now coming to be recognized by medical science, but apparently is capable of doing more damage than cigarettes and alcohol combined. It’s worse than clogged arteries, maybe even than bowel cancer. And there is only one way to deal with it: leave the Middle East well alone!

I suspect that many of us here are suffering from MEDS, but we haven’t the luxury of leaving the Middle East alone. We live there, or it’s our job, or our passion. But maybe – particularly for policymakers here in Europe - there are some other ways to break out of the depressive cycle we are constantly getting ourselves into, and actually get some results. Let me spell out – on the basis of work that Crisis Group has been doing now for a number of years, and what I have heard around this conference table and many like it – what I think are the main lessons that European policymakers should have learned by now, and which if taken to heart may just make a difference.

One. Never lose sight of the main objectives: think not just tactically, but strategically.

When policymakers think and talk about the objectives they are pursuing, it invariably seems to come down to having this or that language in a Quartet communiqué or European Council or UN Security Council resolution; ensuring this or that mandate for this or that envoy; having this or that individual or group as a negotiating partner; or achieving this or that confidence building measure, or step on some roadmap or other.

It’s all too easy in all of this to forget what is the real point of the whole enterprise. The only objective that matters is a comprehensive solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict – which has at its heart a two-state solution in which Israelis can live in safety behind secure and recognized borders, at peace with Palestinians and all their neighbours, and in which Palestinians have a recognized, viable state of their own, with its capital in East Jerusalem, borders based on those of 1967 and a just resolution of the refugee issue.

Looking back, it is extraordinarily depressing to recall how the tactics of the moment have led the key players to miss the main game, for example:

  • the failure, twice now, to recognize the historic significance of the Arab Peace Initiative, parsing the words, missing the sentiment and overlooking the scale of the bargain on offer;
  • the failure to support Abu Mazen in 2005, after he had won in a landslide, was the uncontested leader of all Palestinians, and in a position to sell difficult compromises; and
  • the recurring failure to learn the key lesson of Oslo, that incremental and sequential solutions will never work, condemning everyone to be prisoners of the last extremist on either side: that there simply has to be an endgame-first approach, working back from first-agreed parameters.

Two. Don’t apply double standards – be consistent.

Those of us around this table who are or have been in politics know that there is a pretty fair chance that we will be forgiven by our electorates most of the seven deadly sins – gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, lust, envy and pride. But I think we also know that there is something electors find it much harder to forgive – hypocrisy, double standards, saying one thing and doing quite another. And so it is in international affairs.

I think we have to acknowledge that there has been a pretty regular pattern in the West – to which just about all of us have been party to some extent at least some of the time – of setting the bar higher for the Palestinians than the Israelis. There have always been justifications of one kind or another for this: lots of stupid, dangerous or counterproductive language has been uttered, or behaviour engaged in, over the years by those on the Palestinian/Arab/Islamic side of this debate.

But we should stop and give some serious thought to some of the things which, for better or worse, have unquestionably played into the hands of extremists over the years, for example:

  • the extended tolerance of the West for Israeli settlement building in manifest breach of Oslo, and agreements or agreed strategies since, including those built on parallel rather than sequential steps;
  • the demands made on Palestinian administrators for self-restraint in the face of perceived provocation, self-discipline in the maintenance of ceasefires and the enforcement of security standards, as compared with those made upon Israelis;
  • the tolerance for Palestinian civilian casualties - as inevitable ‘collateral damage’ - when security breaks down, at much higher levels than on the other side;
  • the way in which we see nothing particularly unreasonable in Israel demanding recognition from Hamas, without stopping to think that there has been no Israeli recognition of any Palestinian state, and no similar demand made by Israel in relation to others in the Arab world with whom no peace treaty has been concluded;
  • the way in which we are reluctant to take the Syrians at face value when they offer negotiations without conditions; or criticize Syrian representatives for refusing to talk to Israelis while forgetting that, as Alvaro de Soto has recently revealed, the UN’s own representative was forbidden to talk to either Syria or Hamas; and
  • the complete unthinkability of nuclear weapons being in the hands of anyone in the region – except Israel.

The most egregious of all exercises in Western double standards has been the response to Hamas. It has not been a pretty sight in this respect to watch the almost universal Western disavowal of Hamas after it won the Palestinian election that the West had so enthusiastically supported. An International Crisis Group report shortly after that election argued strongly that the international community needed to recognise the reality of Hamas, focus on engaging with it and encouraging it to govern responsibly, not to force it out of government or make the government unworkable by imposing conditions that nobody believed could be immediately met. We summarised the Hamas response as we found it to be ‘let us govern or watch us fight’. Events since then have done nothing but reinforce the accuracy of that assessment – with the outbreak of civil war-level violence, the complete collapse of the strategy to arm and support Fatah at Hamas’s expense, the takeover of Gaza by Hamas, the collapse of the government of national unity, and the evaporation once more of hopes for resuming any kind of serious Israeli-Palestinian peace process for the foreseeable future.

Three. Don’t be wimps – use the weight and leverage that Europe has.

One of the most consistently depressing features of the whole peace process over the last decade has been the failure of the EU to punch at its weight - not above its weight, which would be to ask too much, but at its weight.

Just ‘being there’ might have been enough to give Peter Sellers influence with the great and powerful, in the famous movie of that name, but there does not appear to be quite as much attention paid to the Delphic utterances of the European Union’s highest representatives: influence in the Quartet and elsewhere requires having something both distinctive and substantive to say.

Of course one must not underestimate the difficult of having the EU speak with one voice – and the new treaty won’t change that. But the truth is that Europe has in fact over and again spoken with a single voice, by accepting without demur in the Quartet and elsewhere the dominant voice of the US. The same has also been largely true about the UN, and – more surprisingly perhaps, Russia: it is not for nothing that the Quartet is widely referred to in the Arab world as the Quartet sans Trois. But somehow the default of Europe seems greater, because its interest in the outcome is so great and it is capable of so much more. We know that there were many voices in Europe – perhaps a majority – wanting full engagement with the Palestinian Authority after the election. And we know that there is plenty of support in this continent (as there indeed is in Israeli defence and intelligence circles) for getting started on the Syria negotiating track. But in the face of US resistance no such voice was heard. Maybe speaking with a divided voice is better than speaking with one voice and getting it wrong.

There are things that European policymakers can do that would make a difference:

  • crafting and articulating a full endgame-first strategy, and arguing for it incessantly;
  • supporting politically and economically and encouraging to move in the right direction those who are the real players, not those who we would like to think are, or could be;
  • encouraging Tony Blair to push the formal limits of his mandate as Quartet envoy and add the value of which he has always been capable, but on which his delivery has so far been deeply disappointing;
  • generally using the weight of its huge resource commitment to prod, push and challenge all the parties, including its international negotiating partners, and putting alternative views to those which have so conspicuously failed to make progress for decades now.

I and many others fear that we are heading back all too rapidly into a further cycle of despair. European policymakers cannot by themselves turn that around: of course it remains the case that the US in particular is the indispensable player. But they can do a great deal more than they have so far to push things in the right direction.

I live in hope that some of my old socialist colleagues around this PSE conference table might take a leading role in this respect. I won’t be holding my breath: our firebrand youth is long past for most of us. But should the mood so strike, more power to your arm.