News Round UP (2 September 2006)

Is Europe gearing up to push for a major Arab-Israeli peace initiative?

It is too early to be hopeful that the root causes of this conflict will be addressed, even in part; nevertheless, there are positive signs coming out of Europe. The major question mark is Washington. Europe has never been able to make a dent in Arab-Israeli affairs without US backing. How will it do it now, especially when Syria and Israel are so distrustful of each other and when Iran is in US cross hairs?

The signs that Europe may be weaning itself from Washington’s take-no-prisoners policy toward the Arabs are numerous.

The Times of London has revealed that Tony Blair has backed away from supporting the US hawks on the Lebanon crisis. This is thanks to Britain’s ambassador to the US, Sir David Manning, who wrote a highly critical letter to Blair warning against Blair’s support for Washington’s role in the Lebanon war. Here is what the Times writes:

Last night the Foreign Office threatened to seek an injunction against The Times if it published Sir David’s letter, but no further contact was made.

As the Middle East conflict intensified in July, Mr Blair was already under fire from Cabinet colleagues and the media. But sources said that the hardest hitting criticism came from Sir David. “It had a huge impact in Downing Street,” one source said. “It was as candid as the letter by the outgoing Ambassador to Baghdad [William Patey]” who had given warning of civil war in Iraq.

After the letter from Sir David, Mr Blair shifted quickly from solid support of President Bush, and a refusal to call for an immediate ceasefire in the fighting, to calling openly for an urgent ceasefire. Mr Blair hopes now to rehabilitate his damaged reputation at home and abroad by launching a peace mission to the Middle East next weekend, in time to face his critics at the Labour Party conference on September 24.

Sir David is more than just Britain’s most senior envoy, with close relations to Condoleezza Rice, the US Secretary of State. He was Mr Blair’s top foreign policy adviser over 9/11 and through the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. Previously he was Ambassador to Tel Aviv.

In the first two weeks of the Lebanon war Britain mirrored US policy, insisting that it would be pointless to demand an end to the fighting until a mechanism was in place to keep the peace. In the region this approach was regarded widely as allowing Israel a free hand to step up its assault on Hezbollah and destroy Lebanon’s infrastructure.

Mr Blair was keenly aware of the damage being done to his international standing. Nevertheless he reiterated the policy side by side with President Bush on July 28 at the White House, when the two men refused pointedly to call for an immediate ceasefire.

But according to British diplomats, Sir David then made a second attempt. This time the two men spoke alone and at length as Mr Blair traveled to California for public engagements without his normal No 10 retinue. “The Downing Street aides went home leaving Manning to work on Blair,” a British official said. “Manning urged Blair to be more robust in calling for a ceasefire and criticizing US policy.”

Britain, which has never played a leading role in Lebanese affairs, was being damaged unnecessarily. Also, Sir David feared that the conflict could grow and that hardliners in the Bush Administration could push Israel to extend its campaign to Syria. Mr Blair was told he must bolster the position of Dr Rice and moderates at the State Department.

The result was dramatic. On July 30 Mr Blair called for “an urgent cessation of hostilities” and spoke about the need for a new peace initiative. Two days later at the Los Angeles World Affairs Council he called for a “complete renaissance” of foreign policy. He said that the battle against militant Islam could not be won by force alone.

Today Mr Blair privately concedes that he has been damaged by his stand on the war in Lebanon, but believes that he can salvage his reputation. Next Saturday Mr Blair travels to the Middle East when he hopes to revive the peace process.

So Blair spoke about the need for “a new peace initiative.” Unfortunately this is not new. Blair has promised the British people many times that he would get Washington to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict as the price for Britain’s backing on Iraq. This never materialized. Why would it happen now that Blair is so weakened and perhaps on his way out?

Other Europeans are also talking about a major peace initiative. Italy’s foreign minister has explained that Italy will now try its hand at leading a European effort to make peace. That is his explanation for why Italian troops are being committed to lead the UNIFIL presence in Southern Lebanon.

EU foreign ministers have been meeting to develop a strategy for peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
EU pushes for revival of Middle East peace talks –
E.U. ready to talk to Syria and HamasFinancial Times

German governing party to send delegation to Syria

The Russian Foreign minister is also headed to the region for visits in Beirut, Damascus, West Bank, and Israel.

The Economist sums up the possibilities of a European move like this:
Just a moment, or possibly more
2 September 2006
The Economist

The failure of other players has given Europe a Middle Eastern opportunity: Europe now has a chance to play more than a marginal role in the Middle East

“IT’S Europe’s moment in the Arab-Israeli arena,” says Martin Indyk, a former American ambassador to Israel and head of the Saban Centre, a Washington DC think-tank. If true, that may mean a big change in one of the world’s most dangerous spots.

Europeans have been marginal in the Middle East for years. Too pro-Palestinian to be trusted by Israel, they have not had much power or influence over the Arabs either. For many Americans, Europe’s current involvement in Lebanon continues the tradition of irrelevance. It has been rather like a “three-stooges” show in which Jacques Chirac grandiloquently announces that France will save the world, offers to send three men and a popgun, and is finally shamed by—of all nations—Italy into sending 2,000 troops, which still won’t be enough. Given an opportunity to show leadership in the region, Europe fluffs it. Again.

Is that too harsh? Of course, Europe’s intervention may yet go horribly wrong, as have so many previous efforts. But to dismiss what is happening in advance is to miss its potential importance. Europeans are sending 7,000 soldiers to the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in Lebanon. This, as it happens, is the number of British soldiers in Iraq—not a negligible force. Two or ten years ago, it would have been hard to imagine Europeans taking such a role. Something has clearly changed. Two things, in fact.

So long as America was trying to broker an Arab-Israeli peace (that is, under Bill Clinton), there was no room for more interlocutors; Europeans were relegated to the role of silent paymaster. But George Bush never picked up where Mr Clinton left off.

More immediately, almost everyone in the region is suffering stings of self-doubt—and a crisis of confidence can chasten people into thinking the previously unthinkable. Israel has clearly suffered a shock in Lebanon. But so has Hizbullah, to judge by the admission on television by its leader, Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, that he would never have ordered the cross-border kidnapping of Israeli soldiers if he had known what Israel’s response was going to be. Coincidentally, a spokesman for the Palestinians’ Hamas joined in the self-recrimination. He complained, in a newspaper, that “Gaza is suffering under the yoke and anarchy and the swords of thugs” (he didn’t mean Israel, for once).

And while it would be too much to claim the Bush administration has been shaken by comparable anxiety (at least in public), America’s scope for action in the region is limited, partly by choice and partly by the fall-out from the occupation of Iraq.

That puts Europe into the unfamiliar position of being the one who hasn’t messed up recently. The European-led UN force should give Israel an exit strategy from its Lebanese misadventure. In another European accomplishment, France last year helped America push Syria out of Lebanon—a feat Mr Bush hailed as a triumph (though that was before Israel’s war against Hizbullah rained destruction on parts of this model state).

Less well known, but not entirely trivial, the European Union, under an Italian carabinieri general, monitors the only land crossing between the Gaza strip and the Arab world, preventing, or at least limiting, weapons smuggling to Hamas.

How sharp are your claws?

The question is whether this activity can amount to anything substantial. Can it, for example, move Israelis and Palestinians towards some sort of peace talks? The European Union is already in the so-called “quartet”, the body that with America, Russia and the UN presides over the so-called “road map” to peace. As part of the quartet, the Europeans have been party to the controversial decision to suspend aid to the Palestinian Authority until Hamas, which now controls the Palestinian legislature, recognises Israel’s right to exist and agrees to honour previous agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. The road map, however, is going nowhere, and the isolation of Hamas has so far added to Palestinian misery without persuading it to comply with the quartet’s demands.

Mr Chirac says the time is right to relaunch the peace process. But how? European diplomats say that in Lebanon Europe should use its troops, influence and money to help the government of Fouad Siniora bring Hizbullah under control, making it a normal part of the Lebanese polity and less of an instrument of Iran and Syria. In the Palestinian territories the Europeans want to nudge Hamas and the more secular and accommodating Fatah movement towards some sort of coalition agreement, which may in turn help to break the impasse between the Palestinians and Israel.

To do these things, however, the Europeans will have to overcome tough opponents. Hizbullah does not intend to disarm, and neither Syria nor Iran wishes it to stop being a state within a state. Hamas’s ideological objection to accepting Israel’s right to exist is deeply held. As for Israel, it will not quickly overcome an instinctive distrust of Europe, or its preference for dealing with a superpower that has long been seen as the only outsider with a genuine understanding of the Jewish state’s security needs. On that last score, much will depend on how seriously the Europeans in Lebanon are seen to take their job of policing the south and preventing arms transfers to Hizbullah.

Only if the Europeans pass these rather difficult tests will the European moment in the Middle East really amount to something. Italy’s foreign minister, Massimo D’Alema, argues that co-operation over Israel, Lebanon and Palestine could help to improve ties with America, by showing that the Europeans and Americans can work together in the Arab-Israeli conflict just as they have already done in their efforts to stop Iran’s suspected development of nuclear weapons. It is worth noticing, however, that close transatlantic co-operation on Iran, backed up by a resolution from the Security Council, has not yet persuaded the Islamic Republic to stop uranium enrichment. As Europe is about to rediscover, they play rough in the Middle East.

This quote about Israeli attempts to get negotiations moving shows the difficulties that Europe will face not only in Israel, but particularly from the US. “Debate about Syria within Israel is interesting. People are slowly reconsidering their position toward Damascus. It will take a lot of arm-twisting, however, to convince the United States to talk with Assad,” one diplomat said.

Here is some old news about Khaddam that I neglected to post earlier. I post it here just for the record.

Khaddam reiterates charge that Damascus killed Hariri
Daily Star staff
Tuesday, August 29, 2006

BEIRUT: The former vice president of Syria said Monday that a UN investigation into the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri would point the finger at Syrian President Bashar Assad. In a live interview late Sunday with Future Television, Abdel-Halim Khaddam once more launched a flurry of accusations at his former allies.

“The Syrian regime wants to lead Lebanon into internal strife in order to avoid the investigation,” the exiled Khaddam said from his Paris residence.

Speaker Nabih Berri has been “marginalized” by the Syrian regime, he added, and threatened repeatedly by Syrian intelligence.

Khaddam said the third report from the UN investigation team, expected in mid-September, would highlight “Assad’s involvement” in the assassination.

“Any security act in Syria cannot be achieved without the approval of the president,” he said. “Can Rustom Ghazaleh take 1,000 kilograms of explosives from the Syrian Army warehouse, as well as the team that perpetrated the crime, without Assad’s knowledge]?” Khaddam asked in reference to the former head of Syrian intelligence in Lebanon who has also been accused of involvement in the February 2005 attack.

Khaddam said Hariri’s murder was meant to silence the five-time premier.

“Those who dismantled the May 17 Agreement [with Israel] were Hariri, [Druze leader MP] Walid Jumblatt and Berri. One of them was killed, the other threatened and the third was marginalized,” he said.

“I know very well how the Syrians dealt with Berri: They treated him the same way they treated Hariri – they threatened him,” he added. “I know that he will deny it, but I’m telling you this is what happened.”

Khaddam said Assad had “harmed Hizbullah” by claiming “a Lebanese party” was made in Israel and wanted peace with the Jewish state.

He also claimed that late Syrian President Hafez Assad had wanted to “fight Israel from Lebanon” and had “ordered his intelligence services to prohibit any attack against Israel from the occupied Golan Heights in order to avoid any security instability” in Syria.

Khaddam dismissed harsh words from Assad last week in which he described Arab leaders as “half-men,” saying: “The Syrian regime’s life is short.”

Commenting on the recent war between Israel and Hizbullah, Khaddam said: “Israel has achieved its main goal, which is the destruction of Lebanon.”

Regarding the disputed Shebaa Farms, Khaddam said: “Saying that the farms are occupied, and hence cannot be demarcated, is nothing but a pretext. The demarcation would not take more than an hour if there was a political will.”

Khaddam denied Iran has forged a strategic alliance with Assad. The Syrian regime is facing “Arab and international isolation,” he said. – The Daily Star

Interpol “agrees to hand over former Syrian vice president Khaddam,” Deutsche Presse Agentur. [ This is clearly a case of Syrian spin]

Interpol has agreed to hand over former Syrian vice-president Abdul Halim Khaddam to Syrian judicial authorities to face prosecution on treason and corruption charges, a Syrian attorney claimed Monday.

On Monday, attorney Hossam al-Deen Habash, who filed the lawsuit against Khaddam, said the Interpol office in Damascus had received a response “agreeing to monitor, and launch periodical monitoring” of Khaddam.

When asked what that meant, he said that “Interpol will follow and monitor Khaddam and when he is spotted it will arrest him and hand him over to Damascus office to be turned to Syrian judicial authorities.”

Nasrallah’s claim that he would not have kidnapped Israelis had he known war was in the offing generated considerable commentary. Here is the article
Nasrallah: I would not have kidnapped troops had I known the outcome.

Even Robert Fisk takes a few swipes at Nasrallah for his speech – of course he nails Israel too in his “The lies, the threats, the hypocrisy…”
2 September 2006
The Independent

After the war comes the hypocrisy, the mendacity, the threats, the sheer brazen lies. … Now get this from Sayed Nasrallah. “If I knew that the capture of the soldiers would have led to a war on such a scale, had Hizbollah had known even 1 per cent, we definitely would have not carried it out.” This, folks, is what I call a whopper. If the Hizbollah had no idea what Israel was going to do to Lebanon – and they are intelligent, disciplined people who knew full well Ehud Olmert’s political situation at the time (it is certainly worse now due to his army’s failure in Lebanon), then why did Hizbollah build all those concrete bunkers in caves and rocks and hillsides for years before the war?


After the War, Nasrallah Takes to the Airwaves Sami Moubayed Bio 29 Aug 2006

Syria denies permit to rights groupSunday Times – The National Organisation for Human Rights in Syria said it was denied an operating permit by the social affairs ministry.

Brammertz brings probe back to Beirut
The Daily Star Staff
30 August 2006
BEIRUT: The United Nations investigation into the 2005 assassination of former Premier Rafik Hariri was thrust back into the limelight on Tuesday after unconfirmed reports that important new evidence had been collected from officials here and abroad.
The head of the UN probe, Belgian prosecutor Serge Brammertz, who returned to Beirut this week from the temporary headquarters he established in Cyprus during the war with Israel, is expected to present a third report on the investigation to UN Secretary General Kofi Annan in mid-September.

According to judicial sources, Brammertz recently flew to Paris to take two separate statements from former Syrian Vice President Abdel-Halim Khaddam and question another key witness, Syrian national Mohammad Zuheir Siddiq.

The sources added that Brammertz recently traveled to Damascus, where he met “a top-level Syrian official,” said to be president Bashar Assad.

Brammertz also interrogated several Syrian witnesses while in Damascus in an attempt to verify some important facts which are to be included in his upcoming report.

Brammertz, who met with Annan in Beirut on Monday as both arrived in the capital, held talks Tuesday with State Prosecutor Said Mirza; Elias Eid, the judicial investigator handling the Hariri case; Justice Joyce Tabet; and the judiciary’s liaison to the international investigation committee, Justice Ralph Riashi.

Discussions focused on the measures taken during the past 45 days and continuing efforts to form an international court to prosecute suspects in the Hariri assassination.

According to the sources, Eid will interrogate several witnesses next week and settle two requests for the release of Ayman Tarabey and Mustafa Misto, the owners of pre-paid mobile-line shops arrested almost a year ago.

Concerning the four imprisoned security chiefs – Mustafa Hamdan, Ali Hajj, Raymond Azar and Jamil Sayyed, who were arrested based on a statement given by Siddiq a year ago – sources said that the generals would only be released if new evidence surfaced to prove their innocence.

The judicial sources also said that Brammertz met on Wednesday with Justice Minister Charles Rizk.

“Brammertz and Rizk discussed the international probe into former Premier Raifk Hariri’s assassination and other judicial matters related to the probe.”

Here is a WINEP report on Asad’s August speech to Journalists. Winep has a new analyst covering Syrian affairs, who is promising. See the interesting article he wrote about the three remaining Jews in the Jazira, linked below.

The Damascus-Hizballah Axis: Bashar al-Asad’s Vision of a New Middle East
By Seth Wikas: August 29, 2006 – WINEP

Three Remaining Jews of Northern Syria Intend to Stay

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