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Sunday, 3 July 2011

European Liberals and the Middle East

Much of interest re:- Syria, Egypt, Israel/Palestine and the wider Middle East in the latest newsletter of LDEG, the association for UK Liberal Democrats interested in European politics. On Syria, a call for tougher sanctions from Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian Prime Minister who leads the Liberals in the European Parliament. On Egypt, news that five liberal parties are to be integrated into the Democratic Front Party, as part of a new liberal coalition - vital in terms of creating an alternative to the Muslim Brotherhood and its new Freedom and Justice Party. And it's great to see the Lib Dem MEP Edward McMillan-Scott, the European Parliament's Vice-President for Human Rights and Democracy, saying, of the countries affected by the so-called Arab Spring:
The EU has the means to help. We must give it the will. EU governments can put up billions to stabilise their economies. They should find the resources to support the huge economic and political challenges the countries in our neighbourhood face. We must reinforce the reformists from Libya to Syria to Yemen or they will lose their revolutions. All types of democracy are better than despotism. Democracy is also a more secure basis for economic stability and development.
Turning to Israel/Palestine, I was intrigued by the comments of Sir Graham Watson MEP, a former Leader of the European Liberals, on the EU's External Action Service (EAS) and its head, Baroness (Catherine) Ashton, with Sir Graham saying:
I think it is true that the requirement in the Lisbon Treaty of having to create an EAS, even though I think it will be helpful in the longer term, has absorbed a huge amount of energy of those who are meant to be carrying out the Foreign Policy. I think that it was inevitable and there has been an impact on the ability to respond to events in North Africa. Baroness Ashton was given a very rough ride in Parliament over Tunisia. However one thing she has intelligently avoided, unlike [her predecessor Javier] Solana, is getting over-involved in Palestine. Hopefully Baroness Ashton will not fall into the same trap!
So this is not me, but Sir Graham Watson, warning Baroness Ashton of the trap of getting over-involved in Israel/Palestine, the implication surely being that over-involvement in this one issue can lead other, equally important issues to be neglected. If that is what he means, then I strongly agree with him and am very pleased that he has said it. The world has many urgent problems that demand attention, and it is wrong to overly focus on any one of them.

This leads me to an article on Gaza quoting Liz Lynne MEP. I have a great deal of respect for Liz Lynne, not least for her long, distinguished history of campaigning against the evils of human trafficking. I strongly endorse her support here for negotiations, the peace process and an end to the firing of rockets at Israeli civilians. As a member of the European Parliament's Delegation for Relations with the Palestinian Legislative Council, she probably knows more about Palestinian politics than I do.

There are, however, a few comments that I would make in response to some of the points that she raises. I get where she is coming from in calling for "a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, including Hamas", but I see few signs of Hamas acting in such a way as to make that possible. As for the suggestion that: 
The continued injustice in Israel and the plight of the Palestinians is a touchstone issue across the world. It is used by international terrorists as an excuse for their crimes.
I have written here previously about how I dissent from that particular piece of the conventional wisdom. Liz Lynne says that "EU governments and (Baroness) Ashton must not duck" any opportunity to relaunch the peace process and "should now be encouraging Barack Obama to take a stronger line on Israel and push them to the negotiating table". I refer readers back to the comments of Sir Graham Watson that I have already quoted, and would question any suggestion that Baroness Ashton is not making Israel/Palestine a priority, given how often she goes there and talks about it. A Google News Search for Baroness Ashton Israel brings up hundreds of stories; a Google News Search for Baroness Ashton Congo brings up precisely nothing.

A huge effort is (rightly) being made by the US, the EU and others to bring peace to Israel and the Palestinians, while far less is done to resolve other conflicts in which far more people are actually being killed, and that stinks (what also stinks, incidentally, is Caroline Lucas' bien-pensant explanation for why this might be, but that's another story). Also, surely it is not just Israel, but also the Palestinians, that must be brought back "to the negotiating table"? As President Obama said recently in London: 
So, as much as it’s important for the United States, as Israel’s closest friend and partner, to remind them of the urgency of achieving peace, I don’t want the Palestinians to forget that they have obligations as well. 
I agree that the current situation in Gaza has worked for no-one; what I don't have is any simple answer to the question of how Israel deals with the security challenges posed by Hamas and other groups in Gaza. The newsletter article refers to how "The almost total blockade of Gaza has caused mass unemployment and near starvation to the Gaza strip's 1.3 million civilians, with a ban on cement imports preventing repairs to ruined buildings", but there is no blanket ban on cement imports, and there is not "near starvation", so why say that there is? There is great hardship, but not "near starvation", so I question the newsletter's emotive assumption that Egypt's opening of its Gaza border will "save countless lives". We have to be dispassionate in our analysis of complex problems if we are to solve the problems concerned; incorrectly describing deep economic hardship as "near starvation" helps nobody.


  1. 'I strongly endorse her support here for negotiations, the peace process and an end to the firing of rockets at Israeli civilians.

    Matthew, do you strongly endorse an end to the firing of air to surface missiles, tank shells, bullets, tear gas cannisters at Palestinian civilians?