The Middle East Channel

Tourists in Washington: anatomy of an European Mideast failure

The ‘weakness’ of Europe — and also that of the US — in the Middle East is not essentially one of waning power and influence. Although the scent of decline always has had a powerful affect in this region, the root of this western debilitation consists of a more profound ailment:  that its solution, its ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

The ‘weakness’ of Europe — and also that of the US — in the Middle East is not essentially one of waning power and influence. Although the scent of decline always has had a powerful affect in this region, the root of this western debilitation consists of a more profound ailment:  that its solution, its generic cure for a range of ills in the Muslim world, is seen to provide no conceivable cure to these regional and Islamic stresses and maladies, which it is supposed to alleviate. 

The nature of the two-state solution — but not the idea of a Palestinian state per se — that the US and Europe prosecutes as the solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, even were it to be pursued to a successful conclusion, is likely to resolve nothing: the West Bank would stay much as it is currently — as would Gaza. And the external refugees would molder on, in some form of unfunded, unresolved international limbo. 

There might be some small further accommodations for West Bank Palestinians; but a US and Euro (non) solution of this nature is sure to exacerbate stress regionally. Palestine will be no more than a disjointed alleviated occupation, possessing the hollowest trappings of statehood as its end result. This deep disenchantment and skepticism that any likely negotiatiated outcome will indeed positively impact any regional conflicts, now represents the majority opinion both in Israel and the Muslim world.  

This is a strategic shift of huge importance. The Israelis have been very open and explicit about what would occur:  they say that they are reaching, and are now close, to the limits of the concessions that Israel’s security needs will allow to Palestinians in the West Bank. In other words, what the Palestinians may expect to receive in a final settlement is much what they have now. Europeans simply may prefer to disbelieve the Israelis who say these things, but that disbelief is not mirrored in the Middle East today.

Such a final outcome it is now widely accepted would defuse nothing. Indeed it might well prove to be the spark that could exacerbate or explode simmering animosities. In short, the western solution to regional tensions has itself become one of the key drivers to the strategic shift towards a new resistance axis in the region. Any thought that a ‘Palestine solution’ would defuse anti-American sentiment in the Muslim world is likely to prove to be a chimera.

How did the Europeans, in particular, get to such a pass? Through much of my direct involvement in European policy, it seemed to me that EU policy — with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — stood in a direct relationship to that which exists between European social democracy and free-market principles. Social democrats have grudgingly accepted the primacy of the free market, whilst working to mitigate its most harmful consequences through social policies and subventions. So too, Europeans have subscribed to America’s principles with respect to Israel, whilst seeking to mitigate its most adverse  consequences on Palestinians and by subsidizing the harms caused. 

Europe thus subordinated itself to the US principle that Israel’s self-definition of its security needs should determine the limits to any negotiated solution. Clearly, the primacy of Israel’s self-referencing security needs, above other requirements, from the start pointed to an outcome that was likely to be — indeed intended to be — one sided. Europe, by implication, also acquiesced to a polarized political architecture for the region that defined it solely by whether a state or movement was pro or anti-peace on this reductive definition; and post-9/11, Europe acquiesced to a COIN (or counter-insurgency doctrine) based on supporting so-called moderates whilst hollowing out and marginalizing ‘extremists’. It was a policy that decimated Palestinian unity, and left every Palestinian faction void of a truly legitimate mandate.

The reasons why the Europeans should have subscribed to such adverse underlying principles when European public opinion largely favored the Palestinians is complex. It was a mix of a profound political dependency on Washington; of EU attempts to ‘contain’ US foreign policy, and also the success of post-9/11 interests in limiting, normalizing and managing language towards ‘security’ needs. 

The tensions between popular support in European states for the Palestinian cause and EU quiet acceptance of the principle favoring the Israeli self-determination of its own security as the unchallenged ‘walls’ of diplomacy were supposed to be met through ‘mitigation’ or European ‘bolsterism’ — bolstering those who might mitigate US policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

First, it was about bolstering Colin Powell. EU policy was distorted and twisted into various shapes that were believed might bolster Powell against the Bush administration hawks — helping Powell win arguments. It was all wasted effort: only subsequently did it become clear that Powell had not even had a direct one-to-one talk with President Bush for 18 months.

Then came the attempt to bolster Condi Rice. EU and European foreign policy chiefs jostled and competed amongst themselves by how helpful they could be: those collecting the most points — phone calls per week  with the Secretary of State — could boast of how they were playing Athens to Bush’s Roman muscularity. History now suggests how little these accommodations ‘won arguments’ or influenced Washington. It is no different now:  Europeans who so wholeheartedly facilitated Senator Mitchell’s efforts, again found themselves deceived.  No sooner had they begun patting themselves on the back at the apparent success of the early negotiations, than they discovered that the ‘progress’ had been misrepresented: their support again had yielded nothing

If this policy of ‘bolsterism’ had stopped at self-delusion, it might not have been so damaging to the Europeans. Instead it led to Euro schizophrenia, rather than mitigation of US policies. 

To satisfy popular domestic sentiment, European leaders have talked Palestinian reconciliation, whilst walking the walk of a Palestinian institution-building project designed to politically cleanse Hamas and other factions both politically and culturally from the West Bank; they have talked state-building whilst fragmenting the institutional structure of the Palestinian Authority, through devolving key functions to external control; they have talked democracy whilst assenting to unaccountable rule by decree, undermined the role of parliament, and facilitated a corrupt economic oligarchism linked to the security apparatus and to one-party hegemony. EU states continually talk aid for Palestinians, but embed their aid institutionally into the security project of eliminating any potential opposition from emerging, in the name of achieving this negotiated solution.

In short, the Europeans went to Washington to mitigate American policies; but, like many before who made the journey hoping to change Washington, they have been changed by Washington. European leaders became covert implementers of ‘alleviated occupation’ for Palestinians and parties to the suppression of Palestinian dissent to this imposition. It is not surprising that their discourse presents all the symptoms of Schizophrenia.

Alastair Crooke is the director and founder of Conflicts Forum. 

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