Withdrawing From the Arabs to the Embrace of the Europeans

For the first time since the outbreak of the intifada, British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week accused the Palestinians of having caused the peace process to fail.

LONDON - For the first time since the outbreak of the intifada, British Prime Minister Tony Blair last week accused the Palestinians of having caused the peace process to fail. At a press conference at 10, Downing Street, he said that "it is impossible to get this process restarted unless there is a credible security plan that allows people to believe genuinely that every attempt is being made to stop the support of terrorism, the flow of terrorists into either the Palestinian Authority or into Israel, and to give a clear message that terrorism is the enemy of progress for the Palestinian people."

He added that terror attacks are no longer considered a legitimate expression of the struggle for independence: "[T]errorists used to say - without the terrorism people will never listen to our argument." However, said Blair, "in today's world, particularly post-11 September, terrorism is the obstacle to political progress, and it is the obstacle to political progress whether it is in Northern Ireland, or it is in the Middle East, or it is out in Kashmir, or it's in Chechnya, or it is any of the difficult trouble spots of the world." The British prime minister also said that "terrorism is the enemy of progress for the Palestinian people."

The Palestinian Authority was swift to deplore this statement: According to the official news agency Wafa. "Finally, Blair has done it by revealing himself in an unprecedented fashion. He is asking us to provide security for the Israelis without taking into consideration our security, which is being threatened and terrorized by Israel." The Arab League also expressed its outrage, and its secretary general, Amr Moussa, hastened to blame Israel for the stagnation of the peace process, saying that as long as Israel enjoys international immunity and continues to build Jewish settlements in the territories and the racist separation wall, it will be impossible to get the peace process going.

Blair is not the only one who has surprised the Arab world. A few weeks ago, representatives from Israel, the United States, Britain and key states in the Middle East, among them Saudi Arabia, Iran and Syria, met for a seminar sponsored by the British Foreign Office at the Wilton Park Conference Center in Sussex on the implications of the war in Iraq. At the final session of the conference, which dealt with proposals for security reforms in the Middle East, those present were astounded to hear a far-reaching proposal: the resolution of the conflict by bringing Israel closer to the European Union and making Europe its strategic backup. In other words: in addition to the planned detachment from the Palestinians, Israel's detachment from the Arab Middle East altogether.

No less surprising was the identity of the speaker on this issue: Dr. Rosemary Hollis, the head of the Middle East department at the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House), a research institute that has always had a pro-Arab image. The latest hostilities between the Palestinians and Israel and the geopolitical changes in the Middle East have brought about a change in the position upheld by Hollis, who has headed the department since 1995.

The Arabs have reason for resentment

Israel, says Hollis in an interview to Haaretz, is dealing with legitimate concerns in the area of security, and Europe, which has historical responsibility for Israel's existence must extend a hand to it to dispel its suspicions. She says that time after time she is surprised to discover that key decision-makers in Europe are still examining the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through the irrelevant prism of the Oslo agreements. She proposes adopting an entirely different approach. "The European Union, British included," she says, "expect the Arabs and the Israelis to make the sacrifices for peace. It has not occurred to them that there's something that they could contribute, that requires some effort on their part. It seems to me that if they are asking Israel to make a deal with the Palestinians that leaves Israel feeling more naked in security terms, then their duty is to explain what they are going to do to help with Israel's security. And I would suggest that they embrace Israel and say: We will be your strategic depth, instead of you having to regard the Arab world as your strategic depth, come with us and be a member of NATO and integrate more closely into the EU." Hollis says she is not suggesting that Israel be made a full member of the EU - the European Commission has rejected the idea entirely and it is also inapplicable because of the Law of Return and European legislation that is not acceptable to Israel - but rather an upgrading of Israel's status in the EU by means of agreements and understandings based on a deep and binding relationship.

"Insofar I noticed people saying, which they didn't use to say, but now they have been saying for the last year or so, perhaps Israel should have never been invented, but then I hear them say that the only solution is for the Arabs to accept the existence of Israel, and normalize with it," she says. "So I see them on the one hand acknowledging that the Arabs have reason to resent the Europeans for supporting something they find intrusive, but on the other hand demanding the Arabs to put up with it, now that it has happened. And so it would be more consistent for the Europeans, and the British included, to say: Yes, we did want Israel to exist, and it is not a mistake, but since Israel is more us than you, Israel's future will be more with us than with you, the Arabs."

The proposal is also likely to appeal to the Arab side because this will be an opportunity to get rid of the idea of integrating Israel into the Middle East. The Europeans, including the British, have for years been upholding the idea of regional integration, i.e. free trade, economic relations, and reciprocal visits. Hollis says she would suggest to the Arabs that "we buy the separation idea, in other words, offer Israel a deal that is attractive to separate from the Palestinian state, and from the Arab Middle East and to bring Israel closer to the Europeans. And if over time the Arabs and the Israelis want to do much more business with each other, this is not precluded."

The separation that Hollis is talking about is based on the formula of two states for two peoples and includes an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders, with minor modifications. "Arab fears of Israeli economic imperialism and Israeli disenchantment with the idea of economic integration suggest it is best kept apart," she says. She believes that at this time the Arab world, which feels threatened by the Americans, will pressure the Palestinians to accept this proposal, even though this will not be easy. The younger generation in the Arab states, she says, has adopted the Palestinian struggle as an expression of Arab nationalism, which will make it difficult for the older leadership to take the appropriate steps.

According to Hollis, she has been mulling over this idea for several months, and it ripened following meetings with Israeli and European public figures and after she attended discussions with security specialists in Brussels. In addition, she noted, during the past few months there were events at which the question of whether Israel is a Middle Eastern state at all came up. "Israel," she observed, "is also predominantly Ashkenazi and Israelis desperately want separation from the Arabs, especially the Palestinians."

Hard to digest

Hollis' idea is so revolutionary that both Israel and Britain, not to mention some Arab figures, are having a hard time digesting it. Likud MK Yuval Steinitz, the chairman of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, who was one of the participants in the seminar at Wilton Park, says that the general idea surprised him for the good and that it goes hand in hand with other sympathetic statements he heard from European representatives. "The EU is sticking to a critical line that has done more harm than good to bilateral relations; there is a trend toward changing this approach," he says.

Is there a real chance that Britain will lead a move to bring Israel closer to Europe? Perhaps there is. Contrary to the prevailing opinion in Israel, Hollis believes that Britain's foreign policy is balanced and closer now to Israel than it has ever been. The Foreign Office is no longer "a hotbed of Arabists," she says, noting that up until the collapse of the Soviet Union the preferred specialization in the foreign service was Russian or Arabic, but today that has changed. "Absolutely; if you are a high-flyer in the foreign service you certainly don't go to Arabic any more; you would go Chinese, or you would go for Europe or Washington, or a combination of both. And that will never coming back. Quite a lot has shifted."

Another factor that has was weakened the Foreign Office was Blair's decision to stick to former prime minister Margaret Thatcher's approach and take the responsibility for dealing delicate foreign affairs out of its hands. She says that Britain's foreign policy is not of a single piece: "There are three issues," says Hollis, "on which you cannot go very far with developing foreign policy without checking with 10 Downing Street. Number 10 has taken proprietary interest in Iraq policy, Saudi Arabia policy and Israel policy."

Blair has warm feelings toward Israel, says Hollis. "Tony Blair personally has some close friends who are Jewish, and didn't have any close friends who are Palestinians or Arabs. He didn't come to office with a developed position on this but did see that the UK has regretted this perception, that Britain is pro-Arab, and so number 10 is guarded about Israel because they wanted to reverse that image. Under Blair's auspices, the idea was that Britain is going to get along better with Israel." Relations between the two countries reached their peak during the period of Ehud Barak's government, but even after Ariel Sharon was elected prime minister, Blair has taken care to maintain good relations and to intervene personally in cases of disagreement. If Blair survives the conclusions of the inquiry into the death of Defense Ministry adviser David Kelly this week, perhaps he will be able to lead the move that Hollis is proposing.