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Conference debates Euro position on Palestinian issue

January 25, 2014 at 3:31 pm

A conference in Beirut focussing on “European Foreign Policy towards the Palestinian issue” has attracted participants and speakers from across the Middle East and Europe. Organised by Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations, the event on 3-4 November had 130 delegates from 20 countries. The tone for the conference was set by the organisation’s general manager in his welcome speech. Dr. Mohsen Saleh told the audience, “EU financial support for the Palestinians is very welcome, but it only deals with the symptoms, not the root cause of the situation in which they find themselves.”

The moderator of the first session, HE Prof. Adnan al-Sayed Hussein, reminded the speakers and participants that international policies “are based on interests” and across the two-day programme the audience heard of historical, economic, political and self-interest approaches adopted by European countries towards Palestine. More than one speaker pointed out that there does not appear to be a single “European Foreign Policy” to which the European Union and all of its member states adhere. Nor said another, is there a coordinated Arab position.

Ex-EU adviser Alastair Crooke said that the European states and the EU itself seem to be placing all of their expectations for finding a solution to the Palestinian situation on the shoulders of President Barack Obama. “If, as is expected, the Obama bubble bursts,” he said in his summing-up of the first day’s proceedings, “there is no Euro Plan B.” Indeed, added Mr. Crooke, as Israel no longer feels the necessity to take part in any meaningful peace process, the solution could well fall short of the coming into existence of a sovereign Palestinian state, leading to an “alleviated occupation” instead. At this stage of the “demise of the peace talks”, he concluded, “it would be better to talk about a return to a Palestinian nation rather than a Palestinian state”. It was later pointed out that US and European opposition to reconciliation between the main Palestinian factions which would bring the elected government of Hamas into the political fold suggests that nation-building is not what Israel or it supporters want.

Comments from the floor at the end of each session provided the opportunity for some of the wide range of participants – including representatives of the Arab League and South African diplomats – to present their own thoughts on the papers put forward for discussion. As is often the case in such conferences in the Middle East, the “Questions and Answers” session was a chance for mini-lectures, despite requests and threats from all of the moderators that they would limit each “question” to three minutes; some participants, of course, had a more flexible three minutes than others.
The only female speaker of the first day, Dr. Layla Rahbani, stood in for Dr. Alain Gresh and added her own thoughts to Dr. Gresh’s paper. She told the conference that despite Europe’s important role in the establishment of the state of Israel (whose power “comes from the hand that created it – Europe,” said military analyst Dr. Amine Hotaite), it is a “political midget” on this issue, despite being a “giant economic bloc”. Europe finances the issue, she said, while the US plays the major political role. This was repeated by many other speakers, including the Hamas representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, who added that “Europe plays a complementary role to America’s, and Israel won’t allow it to happen any other way”.

That said, one wonders why the conference was taking place, although the mainly Arab participants appeared to be investing a great deal of effort in being able to convince Europe to play a more balanced role in Israel-Palestine affairs. According to Osama Hamdan, all it needs is for Europe to find the strength within itself “to criticise Israel” instead of “ignoring Israeli aggression against Palestinians”. The resistance movements, he said, “want to see a strong Europe able to support Palestinians’ human rights”.

Britain’s John McHugo, a board member of the Council for the Advancement of Arab-British Understanding (CAABU), detailed his country’s “historical responsibility towards the Palestinian people” having “created the Palestinian situation” in the first place. His paper looked at the “constructive ambiguity” of the infamous Balfour Declaration and the “prime example” of such ambiguity, UN Resolution 242 of November 1967. In criticising the Israelis’ “spurious and dishonest interpretation of 242”, which calls for the “withdrawal of Israel armed forces from territories occupied in the recent conflict”, as a lawyer he said he believes “it is wrong in principle to prefer an ambiguous interpretation over a clear interpretation.” He also pointed out that the previous day (2nd November) had been the 93rd anniversary of the Declaration issued by the man who, one of the South African diplomats asked the conference to keep in mind, was an arch “Colonial Administrator”. That, he said, put the whole Balfour Declaration and, in fact, the whole Zionist project in context. “Remember that political Zionism itself was framed in response to European hatred of the Jews,” said Prof. Nezam Barakat as he gave his perspective on Israeli attitudes towards Europe’s position on the conflict in the Holy Land. No wonder, then, that Israelis have always sought payback from the West.

That is where the Israel lobby comes in, said Dr. Daud Abdullah in his presentation. The powerful US-Israel lobby has now turned its attention to Europe, he told the delegates: “One of the organisations spearheading the charge is the Brussels-based Transatlantic Institute, which was set up by the American Jewish Committee.” According to Dr. Abdullah, due to its regular meetings with senior representatives of EU states since its establishment in 2004, a prominent American Jewish critic of the Israel lobby, Jeff Blankfort, was prompted to write in 2006, “Over the past year the EU has moved away from relative support for the Palestinians to adopting one position after another reflecting Israeli demands”. The Director of Middle East Monitor described the attitudes of senior European officials towards Israel as “grovelling”. Although European guilt about the Holocaust could not be ruled out as a reason for this, it was pointed out that Zionists’ were lobbying across Europe for fifty years before the Nazi slaughter of the continent’s Jews.

Aisling Byrne of Conflicts Forum discussed Europe’s contribution to the “Reform of the Palestinian security services”; this is a key aspect of Britain’s foreign aid to the Palestinian Authority. Although labelled “state-building” by, among others, the Department for International Development in London, Ms. Byrne preferred to call it “the development of neo-occupation structures [providing] a cloak for a continuation of the occupation”. The agenda, she said, is set by “what Israel accepts and what Israel wants” and the Palestinian security services are provided enough support to be “strong enough to tackle the ‘structure of terrorism’, but not strong enough to pose a threat to Israel”. Indeed, an intervention from the floor pointed out that in this respect the Palestinian Authority is “collaborating with the Israeli occupation”, using its security apparatus “not to protect the Palestinians, but to control them” on behalf of the Zionist state.

With the word apartheid being used frequently to describe Israel’s laceration of the occupied West Bank (and the treatment of its own Palestinian citizens), it was appropriate for Na’eem Jeenah of South Africa to suggest that the Palestinian Authority “will rule over a Bantustan wherein the occupation will be subsidised by Europe”. Bantustans created by the apartheid regime in South Africa were, said Mr. Jeenah, “seen as part of the problem”; in Palestine, however, “the Israelis and their supporters in Europe and America see them as a solution”. He likened Salam Fayad, the unelected PA Prime Minister, to the notorious Lucas Magope whose Bophutatswana even had its own airport but no real sovereignty. Until a fully sovereign Palestine is created, added John McHugo in an intervention, the Palestinian Authority “can only ever act as Israel’s agent” in the occupied territories.

The final session of the conference was arguably the most interesting, said many delegates. Dr. Nahla Chahal, one of only two female speakers, believes that European civil society and Palestinian solidarity is starting to “localise” the cause to provide direct support. The European media, meanwhile, is still very reactive, providing general coverage without adequate contextualisation. This, said Hussam Shakir, is especially worrying when dramatic events take place and the knowledge base provided by the coverage is very shallow.

In asking what the role of Arabs and Muslims in Europe should be, Dr. Tariq Ramadan quoted surveys in five countries which show that support for Palestinians is growing and said that the task is to enter into multiple discourses – political, ideological and religious – to make sure that the conflict is not reduced to a “Jew-Muslim” argument. That, he said, is the net result of the general Christian absence from the debate. “By being more inclusive in how we put our case forward,” he said, “we reduce or remove the opportunities for accusations of anti-Semitism.” We are not, he argued, against the Jews; “we are against oppression and injustice.”

Closing the conference, Dr. Mohsen Saleh thanked everyone for taking part and read out a summarised list of recommendations proposed by Al-Zaytouna Centre, based on the discussions over the two day programme.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.