Which role for Europe in the Middle East under the Obama era?

Press review – week from January 19 to 23, 2009

While it seems urgent to reach new agreements in the Middle East after the war that Israel led against Hamas, leaving Gaza battered and the Palestinian Authority very weakened, the world is embroiled in a new momentum with the arrival of Barack Obama at the head of the United States. After a European relative apathy towards the conflict in December 2008 and January 2009 and an expected redefinition of transatlantic relations, what role Europe can and want to play in the Middle East now?

  • The return of an American leadership in the Middle East accepted by Europe

The Financial Times fears that after the dispatch of European competing delegations to the Middle East and Europe’s obvious weakness, Mr Obama’s administration may be tempted of “letting down its friends.” Moreover, many Europeans seem to favour a prominent leadership of diplomacy in the Middle East by the USA, which would be easily accepted by public opinions, which are largely supportive of B. Obama. However, the journalist advocates for the reconstruction of an Atlantic community based on three pillars: a certain humility from the United States, which must recognize the need for allies, realism that would push the Europeans to become more active on the international scene since the U.S. interests have shifted from Europe to Asia and the Middle East and imagination to renew a EU / USA alliance.

  • The European hopes for the United States in the Middle East may soon be disappointed

Too optimistic about the new American president, who seems more in tune with the concerns of Europeans, they might be disappointed by an Obama administration, whose composition is not suggesting a rebalancing of the U.S. position in the Middle East, says the Inter Press Service .

For the IPS, Obama might be tempted by a certain continuity with the Bush administration regarding the Middle East.

Barack Obama has named Rahm Emanuel, an unwavering supporter of Israel, as his chief of staff at the White House. Benjamin, the father of Rahm Emanuel, was a member of Irgun, a Zionist organization that carried out the massacre of more than 120 Palestinians in Deir Yassin, a village near Jerusalem in 1948. Hillary Clinton, the new secretary of State, told Congress last week – at a time when the number of Palestinians killed in Gaza was already important – that both she and B. Obama, were « very sensitive to the will of Israel can defend itself. »

Concerning Obama’s administration, the journalist Roger Cohen of the NY Times and theHerald Tribune, said that the « dream team » would have included, for example, Shibley Telhami, Fawaz Gerges and James Zogby, while several former advisers of the Clinton administration are still present. Indeed, the team includes Dennis Ross (former commuter for Peace), James Steinberg (former senior State Department), Dan Kurtz (former ambassador to Israel) and Martin Indyk (former ambassador to Israel and was part of the largest pro-Israel lobby in Washington.)

  • The return of Europe to the Middle East: recent European initiatives

In this period of adjustment to the new U.S. administration, some European initiatives- which have been nearly absent in the media since the latter are focusing on B. Obama- emerged.

– The German initiative

Relatively quiet during the latest clashes in the Middle East, Germany has proposed a plan, with a low media coverage, following the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and which would allow the European Union as such to play a role in the area. However, this virtual absence of media coverage of the initiative may show a widespread disinterest in the plan. Germany has proposed a verification by the European Union of the cease-fire in the Gaza Strip for a humanitarian aspect, the prohibition of illegal arms trafficking, the reopening of the crossing points, aid for the reconstruction and a resumption of the peace process. According toReuters, the Twenty-Seven would fund the purchase of medical equipment, would train the security forces and would evaluate the damages in the Gaza Strip.

The plan, drafted by the chief diplomat in Berlin, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who visited Gaza twice since December 27, is considering a possible role for the EU on the issue of reopening of crossing points and a revival of the peace talks on a multi-polar approach. The plan has received the consent of Javier Solana, spokesman for the European diplomacy, and his Czech counterpart, Karel Schwarzenberg.

– A peace conference proposed by France

Quite visible during the conflict between Israel and Hamas, especially alongside Egypt, France will continue to be involved in the Middle East.

According to Le Figaro, N. Sarkozy hopes to organize in Paris an international conference for a « sustainable peace ». Nicolas Sarkozy said in Sharm el-Sheikh his desire to « build on the momentum created by the double cease-fire » to « go further ». In addition to a meeting on « humanitarian matters », the Head of State announced the project a « major international conference that will establish peace this year. » The first meeting should be held in Egypt, probably in early February, at the level of foreign ministers. The conference proposed by Nicolas Sarkozy should be launched soon. The spokesman for the French presidential party has stressed the effectiveness of the diplomatic « Franco-Egyptian cooperation. »

– The reversal of France, ready to talk with Hamas

The French foreign affairs minister, Bernard Kouchner, said on Tuesday that Paris would speak with Hamas when they accept the peace process with Israel. France, like the European Union and the United States had diplomatically and financially boycotted the Palestinian government when it was led by Ismail Haniyeh, prime minister from Hamas after its victory in parliamentary elections in January 2006. The daily « 20 Minutes » said that the issue of dialogue with Hamas is a matter of division in France and Europe. Jean-Pierre Jouyet, former French Secretary of State for European Affairs, pointed out in March 2008, the inconsistency of the policy of the Twenty-Seven in this regard: « We must face our contradictions. We have encouraged democratic elections, we were right. We have boycotted the results, we were wrong.  »

– The EU and Israel: Tzipi Livni’s visit to Brussels

During her visit to Brussels last Wednesday, Tzipi Livni has been asked to lift the blockade of Gaza by reopening the crossings, according to a AFP article in Le Soir. The European Union has offered to resume its monitoring mission at Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt- the only one which does not lead to Israel- and to deploy observers « in other places », « if both parties agree and request, » according to Javier Solana. However, if France wanted to speak to Hamas, the EU is not ready to reconsider its refusal to consider Hamas as an interlocutor.