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Middle East

Europe has potential leverage in Middle East

The spotlight is on the US president as he tours through the Middle East in an effort to revive the peace process. But what role can the European Union play in the region? DW talks to analyst Daniel Levy.

DW: Barack Obama started his Middle East tour in Israel. But it appears that this visit is more about the image of US-Israeli ties than about US efforts to relaunch peace talks between Israel and Palestinians.

Daniel Levy: I think Obama understands that he's not going to get much return from (Prime Minister - ed.) Benjamin Netanyahu, that there's very little chance of progress and he has to decide what his priorities are. I think he's decided to go now because he's sick of having it thrown at him, especially in Congress. He has an ambitious Congressional agenda and therefore he'd like to get this particular monkey off his back. He wants a positive goodwill visit that is mostly about broadcasting a positive atmosphere back home. The second reason is that there's an inkling that maybe during the second term, he can create an opening to really make some progress on this issue, especially with an Israeli prime minister who has come out of his own election weakened.

So there is a desire on Obama's part - in addition to pacifying critical voices back home - to help relaunch peace talks?

I think he knows that the launching of peace talks isn't going to make any difference. I don't know what anyone expects to happen that's not happened in the past when you put Benjamin Netanyahu and (Palestinian President - ed.) Mahmoud Abbas in a room: putting them in a room isn't going to get you anywhere. I think he (Obama - ed.) feels that maybe by having a little more personal goodwill credibility deposited in the bank with the Israeli public, he maybe can use this public platform to try and impact the Israeli political mood and Israeli political outcome.

Moving away from Washington to Brussels, what about the Europeans? We haven't heard much from the EU Special Representative to the Middle East Andreas Reinicke, nor from the EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton. Do you think it's time for the European Union to step up to the plate and take the initiative in moving things forward between Israel and the Palestinians? Do the Europeans have any weight?

Yes, I think they have tremendous potential weight. They are a very important donor to the Palestinians; they're the most important trade partner to Israel. As Israeli builds walls and fences between itself and all its regional neighbors, there's still a 12-hour flight and vast expanses of ocean between Israel and the United States. Israel's backyard, as it closes itself off from its region - and half the region is closed off from it - is Europe.

Daniel Levy, director of middle east and north africa programme ECFR
zugeliefert von: Robert Mugg
Copyright: Joe Mabel, December 2010

Daniel Levy

Europe has tremendous potential leverage on this issue. But Europe is divided, Europe is otherwise preoccupied, Europe has not thus far demonstrated an independence of action from the United States nor a willingness to say: our bilateral relationship with Israel is important but first and foremost it is seen through the prism of resolving a conflict that is in our backyard, that has massive spillover effect across the region that ultimately impacts our security.

Therefore what we will put first is how we use that bilateral relationship to help push a resolution of this conflict rather than incrementally improving our trade and technology ties with Israel, which is what tends to happen much of the time. So I think the expectations from Europe are not great, other than finding new words to express displeasure at Israeli settlement activity. It's become a challenge on a Scrabble board rather than using various policy tools.

But why isn't there more initiative coming out of Europe? Take the Middle East Quartet, for example. A couple of months ago, Palestinian officials said Tony Blair, as the representative of the Middle East Quartet, should pack up his bags and go, saying his job and the body he represents were "useless, useless, useless." Does the Quartet really serve any purpose?

It depends if the Americans use the Quartet as a way of moving their position closer to the other three (EU, UN and Russia - ed.) because of the cover that acting as a foursome, not acting alone, can provide, and therefore they can say, look: this was the collective compromise position of the four. That it's one that America felt was important to sign up for. That would be the realization of the potential of the Quartet.

But the opposite has happened. The Quartet has done much more to neutralize an independent European position than to Europeanize a more balanced American position. That is the unrealized potential and failure of the Quartet which shows no signs of changing. As part of a new American effort over the next year, will we see a pivot away from this situation to one in which America decides that it does want to avail itself of the latent potential of the Quartet? I'm not holding my breath but I wouldn't rule it out.

Daniel Levy is the Director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations. During the Ehud Barak government from 1999-2001, Levy worked in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office as special adviser and head of Jerusalem Affairs.

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