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Europe’s Middle East Mission

Mareeg.com- LONDON – America’s gradual withdrawal from the Middle East puts increasing pressure
on Europe to help foster peace in the region. With complex and heated wars
threatening to bring about the collapse of states like Syria and Iraq, and the
long-simmering conflict between Israel and Palestine seemingly as far from
resolution as ever, it is almost easier to ask what Europe should avoid than what it
should do.

The starting point must be a simple, fundamental principle: Europe should not take
sides. Allowing preconceptions or emotional reactions to overshadow facts could make
the situation much more dangerous.

Consider sectarian struggle between Sunni and Shia Muslims – now the prime mover of
events in the Middle East. Fueled by religious rhetoric and a bloody history, the
conflict engenders a degree of passion and irrationality that is difficult to
moderate. As has been said: “Where the fires of faith are burning, the goddess of
reason tiptoes silently out of the room.”

Likewise, when it comes to the Israel-Palestine conflict, Europe must recognize that
both sides are hypersensitive. If they are faced with criticism that they deem
unfair, they will resort to the kind of truculence and bitterness that has long
thwarted efforts to reach an agreement.

At least two-thirds of Israelis, recognizing the benefits that lasting peace would
bring to the region, would prefer a two-state solution. But the same majority fears
that the Palestinians – with the split leadership of a relatively moderate Fatah
under Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and a Gaza administration under
the implacable, terror-supporting leadership of Hamas – are not ready for a
conventional peace and good neighborly relations.

Making matters worse, concessions on either side appear to leave no impression on
the other. On the contrary, they are usually met with lethal provocations that push
any agreement even further away.

Palestine’s response to Israel’s release in December of 26 political prisoners – the
third batch from a total of 104 detainees that Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu pledged to release when the peace talks were revived last summer – is a
case in point. Many of the prisoners had committed heinous acts of terror. For
example, Juma Ibrahim Juma Adam and Mahmoud Salam Saliman Abu Karbish firebombed a
civilian bus, killing a pregnant woman, three of her preschool-age children, and the
Israeli soldier who tried to save them. Yet Abbas received them upon their release,
praising them as heroes of the Palestinian people and examples for Palestinian
youth.

In this fragile context, EU threats to halt business with Israeli companies present
in the country’s West Bank settlements are problematic, as are academic and
scientific boycotts against Israel. Indeed, such moves would be dangerously close to
favoring Palestine – a sure-fire way to turn Israel against cooperation.

Of course, given the role that the continual expansion of Israeli settlements in
occupied Palestine has played in hampering progress toward peace, it merits a more
thorough and sober examination by all relevant parties – especially Israel. This
requires, first and foremost, an understanding of the issue’s scale. During previous
rounds of negotiations, the Palestinian Authority agreed, in principle, to exchange
up to 1.9% of West Bank land for Israeli territory.

This means that Israel would be able to annex some settlements adjacent to its
border, while giving up only a small share of its land – an exchange to which it
should be open when serious negotiations are underway. The good news is that Tzipi
Livni, Israel’s main negotiator, recently stated that Israel would not claim
isolated settlements on Arab land.

Through all of this, Europe must present itself as an unbiased mediator. If
negotiators on both sides view it as a credible broker of a lasting and balanced
agreement, they may be more receptive to each other’s concessions.

The same is true of religious conflicts throughout the Middle East. Instead of
getting sucked into historical enmities and impassioned disputes, Europe must be
resolved to fight implacably against all forms of jihadism, while consistently
supporting progress toward conflict resolution.

This does not apply only to diplomats; the European media also have a critical role
to play. New and traditional outlets alike must ensure that they portray the facts
accurately and dispassionately, in order to foster a constructive, fair-minded
discussion. Those directly involved in the Middle East’s myriad conflicts do not
need any help generating heat.

George Weidenfeld is Founder and President of the Institute for Strategic
Dialogue and Co-Founder of the Weidenfeld Scholarships and Leadership Programme.

source : Project Syndicate

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