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EU hopes to become bigger player in the Middle East

Posted by claudiacampli su 19 gennaio, 2009

IHT

Monday, January 19, 2009

BERLIN: By traveling to Egypt and Israel on Sunday to lend their support to the cease-fires announced by Hamas and Israel, the leaders of Britain, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, Italy and Spain showed how much they want the European Union to be a player in the region.

But throughout the three weeks of Israeli shelling, airstrikes and ground incursions, in which nearly 1,300 Palestinians were killed – most of them civilians – the Europeans played a limited role, even as the Bush administration was packing its bags, and thus less present than usual.

If the cease-fire holds, the European Union will – as usual – supply humanitarian aid and probably expand its monitoring mission. Individual European nations may help patrol coastlines to ensure that weapons are not smuggled to Gaza by sea.

But there is no question of an EU military peacekeeping mission and, because it has no formal contacts with Hamas, Europe will find it hard to help reconstruction work in Gaza unless there are political changes there.

France has prided itself in recent weeks on the role played by President Nicolas Sarkozy. The newspaper Le Figaro on Monday hailed in a front page headline: “The European Push for Peace in Gaza.”

Indeed, of the several European leaders who have flown to the region, Sarkozy, who co-sponsored the summit meeting Sunday in Egypt, has had the most impact, said Volker Perthes, a Middle East expert and director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. But even the impact of the dynamic leader of France, which has long had interests and influence in the Mideast, is limited.

None of the European ministers broke ranks with Israel and the United States by proposing to open contacts with Hamas. None of them demanded that Israel allow them to enter Gaza. None visited the border area with Gaza which Israel has sealed off.

And none commented on the details of an agreement signed Friday in Washington by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her Israeli counterpart, Tzipi Livni. The accord focused on the United States providing security assistance to prevent Iran from sending weapons through tunnels between Egypt and the Gaza Strip. It did not mention opening borders between Gaza and Israel to allow the resumption of trade.

The Europeans have never believed they could supplant U.S. diplomatic power in the Middle East. Javier Solana, the EU’s foreign policy chief, has spent years trying to convince Israel – suspicious that the Europeans are pro-Palestinian – that the EU can play a role, even a limited one.

The Arab press, meanwhile, has punctured Europeans’ visions of themselves as honest brokers in the Middle East by criticizing them for being ineffective in getting Israel to stop the bombing, getting aid into Gaza or even insisting that reporters be allowed in. In the Arab world, Europe’s reputation has deteriorated.

Europeans have been hampered by their lack of unity on the conflict. And, as Perthes argued in an interview Monday, the regional players are becoming increasingly important.

Egypt has traditionally been the strongest and most influential country in the Arab world even though its influence has waned over the past few years. “Despite that, Egypt is still very important because they talk to Hamas,” Perthes said. That explains why European leaders and foreign ministers make it their business to talk to President Hosni Mubarak and try to see Omar Suleiman, the intelligence chief who is responsible for negotiating with Hamas.

Qatar, meanwhile, brokered an agreement between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government last year. A small Arab Muslim country endowed with vast reserves of natural gas, Qatar is now trying to mediate an end to the fighting in Darfur.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey has also opened up channels between Israel and Syria over the future of the Golan Heights, which Israel captured during the 1967 war.

Turkey wants to engage Hamas to achieve a long-term peace accord between Israel and the Palestinians, so the EU sees Ankara as an important line of communication with Hamas leaders.

Speaking in Brussels on Monday, Solana defended the European role in the crisis. “I think the EU has been engaging from the very beginning in trying to find a solution,” he said. “In the end, the cease-fire was in cooperation with Egypt, which is a country that had a very important role to play and we supported them.”

The EU, Solana added “will be willing to help in any manner necessary: humanitarian and reconstruction assistance, but also on the ground.”

But that is far from easy for Europeans who have reduced infrastructure aid in the region after much of their previous efforts was turned to rubble in past Israeli assaults.

The EU spent €550 million, or $720 million, to support the Palestinians in 2007, the last full year for which figures are available, but it has refused to deal with the Hamas government in Gaza. It spent nothing on infrastructure for the Palestinian Authority in 2003, 2004 and 2006, and only €40.5 million in 2005.

European diplomats said Monday that they expected a donors’ conference would take up the challenge of rebuilding the Gaza Strip after the massive destruction wrought by the Israelis. But EU officials say that, while offering aid, it will be difficult to start reconstruction without a government to talk to.

In the short term, the Europeans say there is no question of recognizing Hamas until it makes significant concessions. Instead, EU officials want Turkey to help persuade Hamas to make changes that could allow for its recognition by the West. They also hope that elections this year will see an end to the infighting between Hamas and Fatah and perhaps pave the way to a government of national unity.

But underlining their status as a junior partner in the region, the Europeans are also waiting for one crucial factor in the Middle East: the engagement of the new U.S. administration.

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