Prompted by the dire situation in Gaza, Spain, France and Italy have floated an unexpected Middle East peace drive. This initiative will almost certainly join other similar aborted road maps and peace plans slowly decaying in the graveyard of international diplomacy. What the EU needs to do is to organise a high-profile Madrid II conference to set in motion a ‘people's peace process'.
The Spanish-French-Italian plan – unveiled by Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero on Thursday 16 November 2006 – calls for an immediate ceasefire, a Palestinian national unity government, talks between Israeli Premier Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, plus an exchange of prisoners and an international mission in Gaza to monitor a ceasefire.
“We cannot remain impassive in the face of the horror that continues to unfold before our eyes,” said Zapatero. “Violence has reached a level of deterioration that requires determined, urgent action by the international community. Somebody must take the first step.”
While the sentiments expressed by the Spanish premier are welcome and the main elements of the trio's plan are entirely reasonable and necessary, the plan is unlikely to overcome the inertia within the European Union, let alone Israeli intransigence and the hostility across the Atlantic in Washington.
At best, the plan will be little more than the expression of good wishes and solidarity with the long-suffering civilian population in Palestine and, to a lesser extent, in Israel. In a similar vein, the UN General Assembly's overwhelming vote – including all 25 members of the EU – the following day (Friday 17 November) in favour of an Arab-sponsored resolution urging an “immediate” end to all acts of violence by Israelis and Palestinians, including the Israeli offensive in the Gaza Strip and Palestinian rocket firing into Israel.
The Palestinians – led by an extremist party, isolated internationally, abandoned by the Arabs and besieged by the Israelis, Americans and Europeans – welcomed the plan – albeit with reservations. Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Siniora applauded the initiative, saying “it asserts the Palestinian issue is central to a just and comprehensive settlement in our region”.
Hamas, which is currently the largest party in the Palestinian government, said the initiative contains “good points” which should be studied further and criticised Israel's immediate rejection of the plan. “The Israelis, they never really have an intention to have a peaceful settlement with the Palestinians,” the Islamic militant group's spokesman Ahmed Youssef was quoted as saying by Voice of America, placing responsibility for failure with Israel.
Unsurprisingly, Israel rejected the presence of international monitors and said that the three-country plan was very similar to the defunct ‘road map' which both parties had already accepted in principle. “We expect the Palestinians to follow through on their commitment, and that is to disarm the different terrorist organisations,” Israeli spokesman Mark Regev said, trying to put the impetus on the Palestinians.
Turning antipathy into empathy
The latest peace initiative has barely been noticed and all indications point to the fact that the writing is already on the wall for this valiant, but severely inadequate, attempt. This is perhaps partially a reflection the general level of international apathy, and Middle Eastern antipathy, towards the deadlocked Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is also partially an indication of the overwhelming expectation that the trio's call for a more robust European role in the Middle East is likely to fall on deaf ears, given the palatable divisions within the EU.
London has already expressed ‘surprise' that it was not consulted before the plan was floated. Britain, embroiled as it is in an ugly war in Iraq and unwilling to upset its openly pro-Israeli allies in Washington, is unlikely to weigh in behind this plan. As during the crisis in Lebanon, Berlin is unlikely to risk upsetting Israel nor its improving relationship with America.
Instead of rehashing the same old noble words and tired plans, the EU should attempt radically different approaches. Internally, it should hammer out – away from the media spotlight – a common and robust foreign policy on the Middle East. Once agreed on between leaders, in order to ensure that the majority of Europeans are behind this common approach, member states should open the process up to public consultation.
The EU's foreign policy chief Javier Solana should then receive a mandate and the commensurate power to go out and work towards this in order to overcome internal European inertia and save member states individual difficulties.
But given the international and regional political paralysis, the EU would do well to start from the bottom up. It should organise a large, high-profile and prestigious Madrid II conference. But instead of inviting Israeli, Palestinian and Arab political leaders, it should reserve centre stage for representatives of Arab and Israeli civil society – along with their European and American counterparts – to set in motion a ‘people's comprehensive peace process' to the Arab-Israeli conflict that would help build trust and a groundswell for peace that is sorely missing now.
There is likely to be a lot of rhetorical fire exchanged, but if a clear mandate and protocol for the forum is established, this can be made more constructive and work towards building a common ground. In addition, empowering the grassroots to talk directly could deliver a number of important surprises. If opinion polls of Palestinians and Israelis in recent years are to be trusted, there is a broad popular agreement among ordinary people on what a final solution ought to look like – the trouble is that neither side trusts the other enough to walk along that potentially hazardous road together which makes efforts by extremists to ambush the process relatively easy. A Madrid II could provide the necessary faith in the other side's good will to walk those difficult last miles to peace.
Like the first Madrid conference in 1991, Madrid II could herald a new period of hope and set in motion a new peace process built more firmly on the expression of popular will. The forum would hopefully agree the outlines of a people's peace accord which the participants can then take back to their leaders and give the political classes the necessary mandate – or push – to return to serious negotiations, each step of which would also involve the people in direct consultation.