Friday, 28 July 2006

It is time for a European foreign policy

A multinational force should only go into Lebanon after a ceasefire and aspart of a political negotiation between Israel, Lebanon and Hizbullah to disarm the latter

Israeli-US efforts to reshape the political landscape of the Middle East are meeting with little success. The Israeli Defence Forces' first encounter with Hizbullah since 2000 has revealed a strengthened enemy. The IDF has fought fiercely for two strongholds, one four kilometres into Lebanon and the other just 100 yards across the border. Since Hizbullah's Iranian-made rockets can travel up to 42 kilometres, it will be difficult for the IDF to disarm the Party of God militarily before its forces succumb to the fatigue that drove them out of Lebanon in 2000. 

Politically, too, Israel's campaign seems to be playing into Hizbullah's hands. Its victims have, in the main, been Lebanese civilians, and the ire this has raised across the Muslim world must be a recruitment boon for Hizbullah. Even Al Qa'ida grew envious of the insurgents' appeal in the third week of fighting, and rushed to declare Lebanon a new theatre.

Israel says it would welcome the participation of a multinational force in the policing of southern Lebanon, but there is little enthusiasm for it internationally.

Israel has ruled out the United Nations, whose Interim Force has proven unable to stop rocket attacks being launched from Lebanese soil. ("I want a serious mission, not one like UNIFIL, " Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said rather condescendingly. He is the man Prime Minister Ehud Olmert plans to send on a charm offensive around the world).

A multinational force must either be a peacekeeping force, in which case it will perform within the same constraints as the UN; or it must be a peacemaking one, in which case it has to do the difficult job of the IDF. The European Union's High Representative, Xavier Solana, wants Europe to be involved. How many European soldiers are willing to die making Israel safer?

A multinational force should only go into Lebanon after a ceasefire and as part of a political negotiation between Israel, Lebanon and Hizbullah to disarm the latter.

The freewheeling methods of the Bush administration when it comes to international law are also cause for concern. John Bolton, US ambassador to the UN, suggested that the multinational force might have UN Security Council approval but come under the command of Nato. In other words, Israel and the United States, the countries which hold the UN in the greatest contempt, would demote it to a rubber stamp. Would the UN agree to such a role?

While pushing this minefield of an agenda, the US has scuttled the first international effort at an immediate ceasefire in Rome. The US, Israel and Britain alone have taken the stance that a ceasefire is pointless if it only achieves a respite for civilians.

Another reported attempt at peace seems to have come to nothing. An alleged deal between Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Israel to return abducted corporal Gilad Shalit and stop rocket attacks in return for a withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza was reported in The Guardian on July 26. The newspaper said the deal had been reached three days earlier, but awaited ratification in Tel Aviv and Damascus.

Since the Peace Process between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in the 1990s, the military option seems to be all that is on offer. But force will not resolve a political problem unless it is overwhelming, devastating and, ultimately, more destructive to non-combatants than to armies. While it persists, force radicalises those who are unhappy, and makes unhappy those who were leading normal lives.

Rather than create a new political process, Israel is choosing unilateralism, staunchly backed by the Bush administration. That is isolating America and Israel. So tin-eared is the administration to the unhappiness Israeli actions cause, that it expedited a shipment of precision-guided bombs to Israel a few days into the conflict, according to a New York Times report on July 22, strengthening the perception of unconditional love between the two allies.

The political support Israel commands in the US today is beyond that enjoyed by any US ally. House Majority Leader John Boehner put it in a nutshell when he told the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee last March, "As the new House majority leader, I can assure you that under my leadership legislation that is in any way perceived as anti-Israel will not be considered in the House of Representatives. " That is support not even Britain enjoys.

The longer the conflict continues, the wider the door opens to a war by proxy in Lebanon. That, along with Iraq and Afghanistan, would bring to three the theatres of conflict between Islam and the West. It is an alarming prospect, not only because such a war would kill many times the Lebanese civilians that have died in the present bombardment; nor even because it broadens a conflict that does not represent most Muslims, Jews or Christians and brings it to Europe's door; but chiefly because, as Afghanistan and Iraq already demonstrate, the war on terror is breeding it. The Bush administration's policy choices in those countries are military stalemates, political tinderboxes and civilian disasters.

Whatever military action Israel has in store for Hizbullah, it needs to remember that even the most righteous grounds for war are eventually spent.
The time is right for Europeans to make a renewed stand for a peace process, as they did in 1991. The last time there was a pressing need for a united European foreign policy on the Middle East, six countries erroneously backed the US-led war in Iraq. They have learned their lesson. Israel and Lebanon are on Europe's doorstep. It is time for the EU to try again.

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