Crisis and changes

A look to 2009’s highlights in the Mediterranean


The year 2009 began with an event that has marked its entire course: from December 27, 2008 to January 18, 2009, the Israeli operation Cast Lead transformed the Gaza Strip in ruins. More than 1300 Palestinians were killed including 410 children and 104 women, against only 13 Israelis, mostly soldiers. The disproportion of the Israeli attack caused many reactions, but no sanctions. Commissioned by the United Nations, the investigation report of Judge Goldstone accuses Hamas and Israel of war crimes and crimes against humanity but the survey results have been discredited by Israel and a year later, nothing has changed for the Palestinians in Gaza.
The great powers

The launching of the Union for the Mediterranean in July 2008 had raised expectations for stronger foreign policy of the EU vis-à-vis its southern neighbors, but events in the Gaza Strip changed the deal and blocked again the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership process. Following a colorful French presidency, European Union turns to the East with the Czech Presidency. A huge financial support is promised for the reconstruction of Gaza, but the European position does not change towards Hamas what blocks the payment. The Swedish Presidency of the EU began with a diplomatic quarrel with Israel about the statements by the Swedish daily Aftonbladed on the use of organs of Palestinian prisoners by the Israeli army. It is still Sweden that firmed EU’s position on Israeli settlements and the situation in East Jerusalem, voted several weeks ago by the European Council of Foreign Affairs. The appointment in November of Catherine Ashton as High Representative of EU for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy let finally hope a European more cohesive and a clearer foreign policy.

As for the United States, they radically changed their policy in the Middle East through a president believing more in a dialogue between people than in a « clash of civilizations. » But if Obama’s policy in the region was full of good intentions, at the end of the year, it shows a glaring lack of concrete achievements. So after tougher stance against Israel in terms of settlements, the U.S. administration seems finally convinced by the minimal concessions made by the Prime Minister of Israel. As for the hope of witnessing a real American disengagement from Iraq, it has been partly disappointed by the sending of 30 000 more troops to Afghanistan, where the situation has less and less reason to be jealous of Iraq.
Regional players up

The year 2009 has revealed the ingenuity of Syria and its President, Bashar Al-Assad. Rejected by the international community in response to suspicions in the case of Rafik Hariri, Syria has this year taken place, which is moreover a prominent place on the regional scene. Having managed to convince and seduce Nicolas Sarkozy in 2008, Bashar al-Assad launched a process of reconciliation with its Lebanese neighbor. The handshake exchanged a few days ago with Prime Minister of Lebanon Saad Hariri seems to put an end to the quarrels between the two countries. Syria has also begun informal negotiations for a peace process with Israel; unfortunately these have been frozen following the events in Gaza. Damascus has nevertheless demonstrated the United States of Obama that it was a respectable regional player with which it will be necessary to count.

Facing EU’s delay to deal with its case, Turkey is turning increasingly its attention to the East and is positioning itself as a strong actor on the Middle Eastern scene. Mediator in the peace negotiations between Israel and Syria, it adopt a strong stand vis-à-vis the Israeli offensive on Gaza to the extent of ending its military alliance with Israel. This strategy paid off as the European Union has opened the twelfth round of talks on Turkish membership. Turkey firmness toward the Israeli attitude gave it an improved aura in the region. A black spot still remains in Turkish politics: the management of areas with predominantly Kurdish population. In the future, it will certainly remain the stumbling block in the negotiations for accession to the EU.
Those that did not convinced

To say that Israel did not convince is an understatement. The operation Cast Lead in Gaza during the winter gave already the tendency. The results of the February elections in Israel then confirmed a drift to the right, even the extreme right of the Israeli electorate. Benjamin Netanyahu built a government with the far right of Avigdor Lieberman. As for the left, it finally disappeared when Ehud Barak join the new government as Minister of Defense. The settlements expand more and more in Palestinian territories, despite the repeated appeals of the international community. The fate of the Arab population of East Jerusalem is getting worst and worst.

Another regional player disappointed this year. Having enjoyed a period of delay vis-à-vis the global financial crisis, Dubai was finally touched a few weeks ago. The capital of luxury turned into a ghost town, leaving even its biggest fans skeptical about a resurrection of this paradise of the five stars. The rich Abu Dhabi agreed to save his neighbor only because its own stock exchange was in danger. The fate of Dubai let consider the conversion model adapted to the Gulf countries for the post-oil era.

Egypt has not given a very pleasing picture this year. Uneasy since the arrival to power of Hamas in Gaza, Egypt hesitates between security and Arab solidarity. It is therefore of its interest to achieve a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas. But with its repeated threats of a possible blockade on the border with the Gaza Strip, Egypt could turn the Party of the Islamic Resistance definitely against itself. Internally, the Egyptian society is facing an economic and political heavy situation. The actions of Ayman Nour gave hope for a rebuilding of the opposition but this was soon found gagged. The excessive violence that preceded the two football match with the Algerian team illustrates the state of frustration and tension which is now the one of the Egyptian population.

Lebanon still stumbled this year following elections marked by the short victory of the anti-Syrian coalition. The national unity government set up by Prime Minister Saad Hariri still foreshadows a sustainable Lebanese unity.

In Morocco, Mohammed VI celebrated his ten year reign. Between authoritarianism and social reform, the Moroccan king ruled the country with an iron hand even if it often slips in a velvet glove. Nevertheless the problem of Western Sahara persists on which Morocco remains intransigent, as the fate of the « Sahrawi Gandhi », Aminatou Haidar, recalled a few weeks ago.

Another anniversary was noted in Libya where Colonel Gaddafi has celebrated his forty years in power in pomp and excess. 2009 has also been to the Libyan head of state the opportunity to deride the European powers. We can remember the welcome reserved to the controversial author of the Lockerbie bombing, Abdel Basset Ali al-Megrahi when he returned to Tripoli, welcome which shaked the British political world. We can also remember the repeated disputes between Gaddafi and Switzerland to the extent of a demand of a dismantling of Switzerland made by the Colonel in front of the General Assembly of the United Nations.

The Palestinian Authority ends 2009 greatly weakened or even destroyed by the combined blows of Israel and Hamas and the insufficient support of the international community, the United States coming first. The Palestinians blame its to big silence during the Israeli offensive on Gaza, and a lack of results considering the peace negotiations with Israel launched in 2007. In an élan of pride, Mahmoud Abbas announced his resignation in November but that decision already seems too late to save his legitimacy.
So 2009 ended in a very different configuration from that prevailing at the end of 2008. The balance of power has changed, but it is difficult to predict the consequences. If a wish should be given for 2010, it would be a strengthened role of the European Union in the Middle East region, particularly vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian situation, which still and always remains the black point in the region.

Nathalie Janne d’Othée