brilliant irish diplomacy - (market opens in 8 min

  1. 5,748 Posts.
    Jun. 26, 2003
    Editorial: Brilliant Irish diplomacy

    Israel's decision to shun foreign dignitaries who meet with Yasser Arafat forced a decision upon Irish Foreign Minister Brian Cowen: to meet, or not to meet, with Ariel Sharon. Following in the footsteps of other Europeans, Cowen has chosen to spend his day in Ramallah.

    We almost sympathize with Cowen's decision. It is, at first glance, a piece of impudence for this government to tell foreign dignitaries whom they may or may not see. For Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio, it has meant tiresome shuttles in and out of the country to circumvent the ban.

    It does little to change attitudes, except to give countries like Ireland another reason to be irritated with Israel. And one wonders whether Israel would stick to the policy should a Vladimir Putin or a Tony Blair pay the region a visit.

    In short, the policy is yet another classic Israeli own-goal that wins us neither leverage nor sympathy. So why do we think Cowen is wrong to meet with Arafat?

    For years, the tacit division of labor between the United States and Europe in dealing with the Middle East is that the former tilted toward Israel, the latter toward the Arabs. Largely this was a matter of basic ideological and strategic predilections. In theory, however, it also had its diplomatic uses. Americans being more friendly to Israel, they could be counted on to "deliver" Israel when need arose, as happened during the siege of Beirut in 1982.

    The same logic applied to the Europeans: Their friendship with the Arab states supposedly held the benefit that they could nudge the Palestinians to moderate their positions, as happened during the Oslo negotiations of 1993. Indeed, part of the reason why the US has chosen to pursue the road map via the Quartet is that a multilateral approach was meant to ensure that all the patrons could "deliver" their clients on the key issues: Americans on the issue of settlements; Europe on ending terror and moving forward with the process of Palestinian Authority reform. (As for the UN and Russia, the former, we suppose, gives the process "legitimacy," while the latter gets to play a bit role.)

    In this game, the US has done its part, as shown by the government's reluctant acceptance of the road map and the dismantling of some illegal outposts. But with the exception of Italy's Silvio Berlusconi, who refused to meet with Arafat and paid the price in being snubbed by PA Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, and Britain, which earlier this year held a conference on PA reform, the EU has largely failed to honor its side of the bargain.

    How's that? However else one feels about negotiations with the PA, it should now be clear that Arafat is a failed leader and an obstacle both to peace and reform. After all, wasn't sidelining Arafat the whole point of installing Abbas as prime minister? Yet by meeting with Arafat, Cowen along with German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin has only enhanced his prestige.

    Nor is this all. As US President George W. Bush reminded us in his press conference with EU leaders yesterday, Europe continues to make hairsplitting distinctions between the "political" and "military" wings of Hamas and refuses to brand the organization as a whole as a terrorist group. Yet when even representatives of Abbas plead with the EU to blacklist Hamas, you know there's something amiss with Europe's attitudes.

    Then too, whatever Cowen and other Europeans think about the propriety of Israel's efforts to ostracize Arafat, the policy merely reflects justified Israeli frustrations with European diplomacy.

    To put it bluntly: Why should Ariel Sharon give his time to visiting officials who not only disapprove of him, but have squandered their leverage over the Palestinians? "We are not interested in the European Union," Hamas's Mahmoud Azhar told Israeli Radio on Tuesday. Here, plainly, is a man who knows a loser when he sees one.

    We should stress that we do not begrudge European statesmen their wish to play a role; after all, Europe's collective interests are intimately linked to events in the Middle East. We also do not take the view that European states have no serious role to play; countries like Norway have shown that clever diplomacy can amply compensate for negligible power. Finally, we do not rue the fact that European sympathies generally lie with the Palestinians; in the deepest sense, the interests of the Palestinian people are in Israel's interests as well. Along with Abbas, we too want a Palestinian state that is a "qualitative addition" to the family of democratic nations.

    What we cannot understand, however, is why European diplomats continue to pay slavish homage to Arafat rather than push for real reform. So long as they play that game, we'll continue to play ours. Which really is a pity for us both.

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