Both Arabs and Israelis look at the ongoing argument between Americans and Europeans as something worrisome, each party for a different reason. For the Arabs, it goes without saying that they fear the Europeans would retreat back, under pressures, after showing that courageous and fair stance in respect of the Palestinian problem. They want them more involved and more efficient. The moral support of the European Union for the “incarcerated” old man of Ramallah (i.e. Arafat) has been considered a major asset for peace seekers.
But the Israelis do not see it that way. Neither the Americans do, as it seems!
It is known, the State Department has lately summoned the French ambassador to Washington, Franéois Bujon de l’Estang. It has been confirmed that the latter met Assistant Secretary of State for European and Eurasian Affairs Beth Jones. The comments of Mr. Hubert Védrine, French foreign minister, about the American policy seemed to have stirred something in the ducks’ pond! No wonder. As a socialist, and as a disciple of Franéois Mitterand, Védrine has little to do with Mr. Bush and his colleagues of the Republican Party. From the strict ideological point of view, thus to speak, the left-wing French foreign minister does not stand on the same platform as Bush. The difference between them, although somewhat deafened by the responsibility in the high posts they occupy, cannot be always restrained and contained within these limits. Soon or late, the tough language of the American conservators would inevitably clash with the leftist sensibility of the French socialists over issues as important as the fight against terrorism or the complicated problems of the Middle East. Anyway, even prior to September 11, there was also some disagreement between the USA and Europe concerning topics as different as environment, trade, and armament. The French press was not acquired to Mr. Bush. Some of its pundits had even made their choice in siding openly with his rival, Mr. Gore. The leftists, who are still in power, having their say in the media, have never appreciated the ultra-conservative views of Mr. Bush. But when they said it, the current American administration was perhaps not yet “hearing”, because of all the tumult that ensued the elections in America. However, now that there
is an agenda and a program with a clear purpose for the Atlantic alliance, the divergences may sometimes seem irritating for the ultra-sensitive skins.
That is what happened after the recent positions of Mr. Védrine. A senior State Department official declared about this subject: ” We have found their whole response sort of unnecessary and that is certainly a subject that the secretary has spoken about before like when he mentioned Védrine was ‘getting the vapors’.”
The official referred to comments Secretary Powell made in an interview with the Financial Times, in which he used the phrase to chastise Védrine for calling Bush’s Foreign policy “simplistic”. Trouble is that Védrine was not alone to use such vocables. For him as for a number of his European colleagues, we cannot just reduce ” all the problems in the world to the struggle against terrorism”. German foreign minister Joschka Fischer agreed: “We need to fight against terrorism with determination. But we must also look at the social and economic roots of that problem.” Fisher has also wondered aloud about the wisdom of lumping three countries (i.e. Iran, Iraq, North Korea) in the same pot, reminding Washington that “alliance partners are not satellites”. As to Chris Patten, the European Union’s commissioner for external affairs, he said merely that the Bush administration’s stance towards the rest of the world was “absolutist and simplistic”, and that it was time European governments spoke up and stopped Washington before it went into “unilateralist overdrive”.
In France itself, there is an important debate in the press about the “rift”. On a visit to Australia this week, Defense Minister Alain Richard played down any fears of allied cracks in the US-led war against terrorism denying there was any rift: “Europe and the United States have had a military relationship for years, and for France 200 years, so the momentary disputes about policies won’t change this relationship”, he told reporters. ” On the other hand a lot of us have never thought of the alliance as only one way of thinking”, he added.
Thus, if the coalition is important to the Europeans, they will not agree on everything the USA will do, though. Either on the problem of Iraq, or in Palestine, the European think that they are able to obtain more satisfying results with a well-modulated flexible approach than in threatening and using force. Encouraging reforms in the countries Bush described as “the axis of evil”, seem to them more rewarding. What good would come for instance out of Mr. Ari Fleisher’s remark implicating the Palestinian Authority in the “axis of evil”? Commenting the latter expression, Mr. Fleischer said:
“The president has always been very clear in all the statements he’s made, whether it was about North Korea, Iran, Iraq, or anywhere, Palestinian Authority, that it’s the people that the United States is concerned with, that they are victims of regimes that invite terrorism and that practice terrorism”.
In different circumstances, that kind of talk would not have roused such waves in Europe. It would even have appeared congruent. After all, who doesn’t know that in some countries it is the state itself that organizes terrorism against its own citizens? Suffices-it to read the reports of Amnesty or the Human Rights Watch or Reporters sans frontiéres, to be convinced that there are much more countries that deserve to be ranged in the axis of evil. And there is no doubt that those who practice terrorism within their boundaries would not hesitate to export it to Europe, to the USA, and to the rest of the world if they think it convenient for their interests.
Many years before the war on terrorism became a priority in the U.S. it had been the main problem confronting the West-European governments, in the seventies. Thus, Europe has not only an advance on the Americans as to the way it tackled the question, but its experience may be also of some importance. We do not count the experts in terrorism anymore in Europe. The Baader-Meinhoff gang, the red brigades, Carlos, and all the little extremist groups (from the left or the right) that threw trouble and shed blood everywhere in Europe, did not disappear by chance. They have been actually hunted down and dismantled well before the idea of a Europe without boundaries could seem possibly achievable some day. And one should now wonder whether it would have seemed really safe if the Europeans failed in their fight against the terror in the seventies! Likewise, the flexible stances of the Europeans in respect of the conflict of the Middle East é the Venice declaration for example -, as well as the Arab-European dialogue inaugurated since 1973, played their role in cleaning up the climate between Europe and the Arab world. Then, let’s not omit that Europe is much more close to the Middle East than the United States, and thereby also more exposed. This is to explain why Europe is more cautious over some issues, and why being cautious, its voice has to be heard across the Atlantic.
The current controversy implicates, to be sure, the existence of varied approaches to the problem of terrorism. The Europeans, though still attached to the alliance with the USA, seem to opt for another way than the systematic use of military coercion. It should be recalled also that the complaints do not come from the sole Washington. The Europeans think that the latter cares a little about consulting them on important foreign policy questions, such as expanding war on terrorism beyond Afghanistan.
Writing in The Financial Times, Chris Patten repeated earlier criticism of US unilateralism that mirrored Védrine’s comments. He called on Washington to abandon its “instincts” for unilateralism and instead use its leadership to promote international cooperation.
The Americans rejected this criticism out of hand: “The view that the United States is not consulting with its European allies and partners could not be further from the truth”, said Philip Reeker, deputy State department spokesman. ” Secretary Powell is in frequent contact with European leaders, foreign ministers, including his French colleagues”, he added. ” Likewise, President Bush spends enormous amounts of his time in direct consultation with our European partners by phone and in person”.
Yet, the divergences are there, and maybe they have never been as important as they are today concerning the Middle East.
In this region particularly, the Europeans have had a different approach since years. No wonder that they were urging the U.S. to agree to the dispatch of an international observer force to the Palestinian territories: the current events proved they were right. In talks with officials in Washington during the last December, EU foreign and Defense Policy Commissioner Javier Solana and Miguel Moratinos, the EU’s Middle East ambassador, have argued that sending international observers would make it easier for Palestinian Authority head Yasir Arafat to accept a package along the lines being developed by Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres and Palestinian Legislative Assembly speaker Abu Ala, aiming at ending intifada and violence through early recognition of Palestinian statehood.
At an early December meeting in Rome, teams headed by Peres and Abu Ala hammered out guidelines for a peace plan based on a cease-fire and an early declaration of Palestinian statehood in the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, followed by state-to-state negotiations on final borders, refugees, Jerusalem, water and security arrangements, to be concluded within a year.
According to some sources, the main sticking point was the amount of land to be transferred to the Palestinian State at the outset. The Israelis were talking about areas A and B on the West Bank, which would give the Palestinians about 42 percent of the territory. The Palestinians were insisting on close to 100 percent of the land. Whether they were about to reach a conclusion or not, is hard to say. But the main point is that Sharon dismissed these talks as “illusory and dangerous”, after authorizing them.
Today, some Israelis acknowledge, ” after 15 months of Israel’s military confrontation with the Palestinians, there is no escaping the conclusion that the Sharon government does not have any military solution “. Haaretz commentator Ze’ev Schiff, who knows Sharon’s tactics very well since he described them in his book about the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, says that the Israeli military establishment is urging the government ” to increase military pressure on the Palestinians”. But on the other hand, Sharon is not allowed to go beyond some red lines that Washington indicated to him in his last visit! (2/17/2002).
The divergences of the European and the Americans precisely over this issue are not of much help for the peoples of that region. The Europeans- with the exclusion of Great Britain- have already pointed out that they reject Israel’s stance that no peace talks can start until a lasting cease-fire takes hold- a position Washington has generally supported. Mr. Josep Pique, Spanish foreign minister, has noticed since Védrine presented his plan to his 14 EU colleagues, that fixation on security matters at the expense of political initiatives has created an impasse. The plan put the European Union at odds with the United States. It contains mainly two sequences:
Palestinian elections “to support the Palestinian Authority’s popular legitimacy in its efforts to crack down” on extremists. These could be general elections or a vote for a legislative council that would prepare for presidential elections once a Palestinian state has been proclaimed.
For the elections, Israeli troops in the West Bank and Gaza Strip would withdraw to the positions they held before September 2000 and lift travel restrictions. Israel would recognize the new Palestinian state, which would also immediately be made a U.N. member. The plan did not address the issue of the state’s borders.
Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.