If Yasser Arafat's death is to signify anything, the European Union must radically rethink its role as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The death of Yasser Arafat has widely been seen as marking the closing of a historical chapter. Although he was largely marginalised in recent years, the charismatic leader was the international face of the Palestinian struggle for statehood for some four decades.
He died on 11 November, but will this symbolic day for Europeans also mark a fresh beginning in the Middle East, or, like the Armistice of 1918, will it prove to be yet another false start?
“Given Arafat's centrality…and the critical juncture that has been reached in the Arab-Israeli conflict, [his] departure from the scene…sets in motion various new dynamics,” said Mouin Rabbani, senior Middle East analyst with the International Crisis Group, an independent Brussels-based think-tank. “Whether these are positive or negative will be determined by how the various actors…respond over time,” he added.
The Union is being hopeful. “The best tribute to President Arafat's memory will be to intensify our efforts to establish a peaceful and viable state of Palestine as foreseen by the ‘road map',” urged Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief. European diplomacy does appear to have stepped up a gear. The EU has already pledged to underwrite the forthcoming presidential elections on 9 January and has urged Israel to ease its military grip on the Palestinian territories to enable Palestinians to exercise their democratic right.
Support for the elections was also forthcoming from the long-idle and ineffective Quartet – the EU, the US, the UN and Russia. But the success of the elections will depend on the Israelis as much as the Palestinians. If Israel insists that only candidates that it approves – such as Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) chairman Mahmoud Abbas – run in the presidential race, then this will compromise the democratic credentials of the vote and the credibility of the eventual winner.
“Democracy is democracy,” pointed out Ali Jarbawi, head of the Palestinian Election Committee. “The Palestinians must be allowed to choose their representatives.”
In the longer term, there are fears that, rather than marking a new dawn, the darkness of conflict may only be punctuated by the fleeting flash of cameras as leaders line up for photo opportunities. “I would warn against exaggerated expectations,” said Eberhard Rhein, a senior policy advisor at the European Policy Centre, who was director for the Middle East at the European Commission from 1984 to 1996. “We need a sea change in the diplomatic handling of the conflict.”
Rhein argues that the Union needs to become more assertive and push the United States into becoming more active and accepting a mediation partnership. “The EU is too weak to go it alone. It is essential for the EU and the US to get their acts together,” he said.
But there is a good chance that the Americans – embattled in Iraq and with a White House sympathetic to Israel's hawkish premier Ariel Sharon – will feel little incentive to act. Others argue that this should not stop Europe. The Union's mature handling of the ongoing Iran nuclear spat and its swift and decisive response to the Ukrainian elections could point the way forward. “I not only believe the EU can make a difference, I think it is only the EU that can make a difference, if Washington continues with its current policies,” said Rabbani.
“[The EU is] no longer content to play second fiddle to the US and stand idly by while the Middle East burns,” he added. “It will seek to turn Arafat's absence to its advantage and inform Washington that its precondition that Arafat surrender executive powers has been met.”
The Americans and Israelis bemoaned Arafat as the main obstacle to peace. But others see Sharon as a troubling impediment in his own right. During his long career, he engineered Israel's bloody 1982 invasion of Lebanon, helped undermine the Oslo peace process by building more settlements than ever before and provided the spark for the current intifada when he stormed through the al-Aqsa Mosque complex – Islam's third-holiest site – with hundreds of soldiers in September 2000.
Rabbani believes that the Union should use its economic and political influence to change radically the way the defunct peace process has, to date, been handled. The Americans have to be persuaded to accept the fact that they are not honest brokers and turn the mediation process into a multilateral one.
The EU should then “persuade the international community to collectively present and actively promote a peace plan that goes well beyond transitional and incremental agreements – like Oslo and the road map – and vague generalities”.
Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians will be able to give political ground, without first finding common human ground. It remains to engage the parties whose voice has so far been largely ignored by the political elites: the Israeli and Palestinian people. A broad national debate and referenda should be organized to prepare the two sides to make the painful concessions necessary for peace.
This article first appeared in the 9-15 December 2004 issue of The European Voice.