"We Arabs have not been able to unite. How can we have a union with Scotland or Scandinavia or Israel?" You have to admit that Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi, who made this statement last week, is a perceptive man. His remarks were aimed directly at the Union for the Mediterranean, which convenes today with great pomp and circumstance in Paris. French President Nicolas Sarkozy's flagship project has already raised the hackles of half the countries of Europe - because of a feared split in the European Union - and half the states of the Mediterranean - because of Israel's participation in the conference. But Gadhafi's main opposition was to the colonialist approach embodied in the union, led by France, which - in his eyes - is taking parts of the Mediterranean and parts of Africa to create a framework that will be led, de facto, by European states.
There is some justification for Gadhafi's anger, the most convincing proof for which comes, somewhat surprisingly, from Turkey. Ankara views the conference as a French maneuver aimed at blocking Turkey's entry into the EU, and not without cause. Sarkozy spearheads the opposition to bringing the large, unemployment-battered Islamic state, most of whose territory is in Asia, into the wealthy, Christian European Union. He even tried to pass legislation requiring a referendum in France on the addition of new EU member states, based on the assumption that French citizens would oppose the inclusion of more Muslims in the EU. The cultural gaps between Europe and Turkey, Sarkozy said, make Turkey more suitable to a different framework of nations, one that also has Arab members, than to full membership in the EU itself.
Islam is the antithesis of democracy, declares France self-righteously, and Islamic states should know their place. Nevertheless, just who is the pillar of Turkish democracy? When Bernard Kouchner, Sarkozy's foreign minister, speaks of Turkey's army, he emphasizes its "very important role ... for democracy and the separation of mosque and state." In Turkey the army is responsible for protecting Ataturk's secular constitution, and the fact that Turkey's army has already carried out three military coups and is behind the current demand to shut down the ruling party does not disturb France. Neither does secular Turkey's 1974 invasion of Cyprus. When it's necessary to block the entry of Islam into Europe it is permissible to tear out and throw away a few pages from history. No wonder Turkey is very suspicious about the Union for the Mediterranean.
But ironically it is anti-Islamic France that is considered a friend of the Arab states. Sarkozy has taken some flak, admittedly, in the Arab press for his speeches of support for Israel and his other "demonstrations of love for the Zionists," but that does not stop Syrian President Bashar Assad from viewing him as a true friend, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak from visiting Paris, or Lebanon from taking him on as a partner. Religious faith or "culture gaps" are one thing, interests are another.
It's not just about contracts and money, which of course have no color or smell, neither religious nor national. France is perceived as a friend of the Arabs because America is a friend of Israel. France's colonial history has been put into storage because American colonialism has come to the region. The U.S. invaded Iraq and Afghanistan and is holding the hand of Israel, which is keeping the Palestinians under a regime of occupation. France is no saint - it is afraid of Islam and its citizens view Arabs as an internal threat - but in comparison to Washington, Paris is pure as the driven sand.
And now a "danger" is creeping toward this clear demarcation between Israel and the Arabs, France and America. Sarkozy's Union for the Mediterranean threatens to destroy this comparison, to draw Israel closer to the space in which the Arab states had felt relatively safe in terms of foreign relations. They are being asked to shake Israel's hand even before it solves its problems with the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Lebanese. They are being imprisoned in a Mediterranean circle with Israel, while the Arab circle to which they so forcefully belong is being threatened by Israel.
Israel may be able to say with satisfaction that it succeeded in joining yet another framework with Arab members, that France is once again a close friend and that its position in the world has never been better. But when the conference in Paris is over, Israel will not return to agreements over fishing in the Mediterranean or joint marine rescue drills. Gaza, Ramallah, the Golan Heights, Hezbollah and Hamas will not disappear, and they, of course, were not invited to Sarkozy's presidential palace.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now