IISS/CEPS European Security Forum

Chairman's Summing-Up

by François Heisbourg

In approaching Europe's Role in the Greater Middle East, the European Security Forum had the benefit of three essentially complementary papers, with Alain Dieckhoff's focussing on Europe's positioning vis-à-vis the Israeli-Palestinian nexus, Anthony Cordesman's taking the broad spectrum view of the region, while Vitaly Naumkin gave a Russian view of the EU's role. The proceedings occurred before both the Beirut summit of the Arab League and the Israeli occupation of Ramallah and other West Bank cities.

In their oral presentations, the paper-givers were requested by the Chairman to address more particularly the question of what the EU should do, notably in relationship to US policies, and to what extent the effectiveness of EU institutions could be improved.

Alain Dieckhoff (senior research fellow, CERI, Paris) expressed his pessimism since Sharon's political interest is to end the Oslo process. He noted that there would be a tremendous effect in Israel if the Palestinians confined their use of violence to the occupied territories. He emphasized the need for close coordination of EU policy with US policy – provided the US resumed a political (not simply a security-agenda) role in the conflict.

As for the EU, there could be an advantage in providing greater responsibility to Javier Solana, not least in terms of exploiting the "Taba acquis", in case a peace process resumed.

Anthony Cordesman (Arleigh A. Burke Chair in Strategy, CSIS, Washington, DC) underscored the fact that only countries (or organisations) which are direct players in the Middle East will be taken seriously. This is demonstrated inter alia by the fact that regional tolerance (or support) of US operations against Saddam Hussein's regime would be more important than European attitudes. He emphasized the scope of security challenges: CW (notably 4th-generation agents not necessarily covered by the CW convention) and BW attacks had to be expected. Such prospects implied a high degree of international cooperation in a broad range of fields. Nor was the world's dependency on Middle Eastern oil going to diminish, with the Gulf's share of oil exports set to rise from 45% in 2002 to 60% in 2020. Most of this consumption will result from Asian demand, and will entail increased reliance on maritime transport through the Straits of Hormuz. Middle Eastern demographics were insufficiently taken into consideration, notably in light of the enormous pressure building up in hyper-urbanised and alienated societies; in parallel, economic growth a number of countries (Morocco, Tunisia...) continued to be more dependent on rainfall patterns than on macro-economic factors.

A political settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians would simply not be possible along 1967 borders; rather, it could look like Taba but with non territorial issues (such as water) thrown in. He did not expect the US to resort to any major economic pressure against Israel, even if the latter crossed "red lines".

Vitaly Naumkin (President, International Centre for Strategic and Political Studies, Moscow) concurred with the assessment that Sharon was basically interested in military solutions. On the political side, the Abdallah Plan would have zero chances of being accepted in Israel if the issue of refugee return was included at the Syrians' insistence. As far as military operations in Iraq was concerned, he voiced the fear of regional instability unless the Americans could succeed rapidly in working with the central Baghdad power structure; he noted Saddam Hussein's attempts to entice the Russia by offering an "oil-for-debt" scheme (Iraqi oil exported under the Russian flag to repay Iraq's debt to the USSR): this was unlikely to work.

In the debate, the issue was raised of a broadening of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to other countries as well as of the implications of the conflict for possible US operations against Iraq. The risks of an extension of the conflict were considered as limited, given the military weakness of Syria, Egypt and Jordan, notwithstanding the precedent of 1967 in which Jordan was forced into a war it didn't want. Conversely, it was pointed out that the US would have extreme difficulty in operating from the Middle East if Israel pursued its operations, notably to the point of engaging in forced relocation of population. The likelihood of ethnic cleansing, up to the Jordan river was low, notwithstanding Sharon's longstanding support for a Palestinian entity lying on the east of the River Jordan. However, forced relocation within the West Bank was another matter, since there was little chance that Israel would return to the 1967 borders; indeed such transfers were already occurring in the name of security measures.

Close attention was paid to the prospects of re-launching a peace process. Here, converging views were held concerning the failure of incrementalism: in particular, the "7 day cease-fire clause" – as a preliminary first step – was denounced, since this made everyone a "prisoner of the last extremist". In effect, the outlines of a potential peace settlement were well known (notably since Taba): These had to be revived, and "shoved down the throat of the contenders" by the outside world, not least the US and the EU [see on this score the subsequent op-ed piece by Gareth Evans in "The International Herald Tribune" of 10 April 2002].

The EU could benefit from its good positioning vis-à-vis the Palestinians. Conversely, it wasn't entirely clear whether the EU's role was aided or hampered by the diversity of its institutional forms of presence (Commission, CFSP, member states, etc.): for some this created flexibility; for others, this variety betrayed lack of agreement between EU actions.

In any case, the US and the EU simply had to try and try again, since there was no way of telling in advance when the "magic moment" had arrived for a successful re-launching of the peace process. One of the intrinsic difficulties of any peace process is that the Israelis are faced with the prospect of relinquishing physical assets (land, water) in exchange of intangibles (recognition, security cooperation). Nonetheless, Israel has a vital need of recognition as its permanent place in the region: the reality of demographic trends is inescapable.

Consideration was given to the new dynamic of confrontation. Rather than a straight religious "Muslim versus Jew" confrontation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be drifting towards "bosnification", i.e. an ethnic/national confrontation (albeit with religious overtone) akin to what has occurred in Bosnia, with Israeli Jews against Arabs (including Christians).

Concerning the evolution of the Palestinians' situation, the prospect was raised of Palestine becoming a failed state even before it was born. In any case, the competition for the succession to Arafat was in practice open, with on the one hand the "old guard" (Abu Ala, Abu Mazen...) and on the other the "new guard" (e.g. Marwan Barghuti). These potential successors tend to be more, not less, nationalistic than Arafat, but they were, in its time, in favour of the Oslo process. Palestinian terrorism, whatever its other characteristics, was not at this stage, put of "terrorism with a global reach"; and although this was faint consolation, there was no narcotics or kidnapping-for-money aspect in the current violence.

Finally, the broader regional context was reviewed. On this score, it was noted that Saddam would have little incentive to accept international inspectors (whose task it is to help prevent Iraq from developing weapons of mass destruction), if the operative US objective were the overthrow of the dictator, come what may. In contrast, it was pointed out that the risk flowing from Iraqi WMD in terrorist hands was substantially greater than anything resulting from the Israeli-Palestinian confrontation.

On the economic level, and independently of the Iraqi situation, the view was expressed that little is to be expected from regional economic integration as a force of progress: there isn't enough complementarily between the various (mostly rentier) economies of the region, and the economic barriers between each country are inordinately high.