Europe and the Middle East

It is extremely unlikely that there will be an equitable and lasting settlement in the Middle East without the balanced and sustained involvement and leadership of the United States. As the only superpower in a world of increasingly influential lesser powers, the United States matters everywhere. No one else does. Donald Rumsfeld might have called this reality a "known known."

But other countries or groups of countries also matter hugely, in some regions and over some issues: China on North Korea; India and China on future environmental hazards; Europe on the Middle East. Europe matters here for four reasons. First, geographical proximity: The Middle East is our backyard, or maybe our front porch. Second, historical and cultural links. Third, commercial contacts: We're working to create a free-trade area around the Mediterranean supported by a large development budget and soft loans. Fourth, backing: Any settlement is going to require our financial and political support.

So how does Europe manifest its engagement? Mainly through a lot of anguished, but largely ineffective, political involvement. Ministers and officials come and go. There are hand-wringing discussions and communiqués. And sometimes those of us in the field say something a little risky -- something that has not been cleared by America's National Security Council (NSC) or by Israel's foreign ministry. We were early supporters of the Palestinian state. We pay for peace initiatives. We expressed concern about the Wall -- I've seen it and wondered to myself, 'When is a wall not a wall?' We believe that any change to the 1967 borders in a final settlement should be by agreement. We funded the Palestinian Authority with support closely watched over by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, in the days after so much support had been channelled (no questions asked) through the Arafat bank account.

We don't go much beyond these steps. We are reluctant -- most of us -- to say anything that distances us from the United States. But there is a world of difference between accepting that the United States is the prime mover in the region and asserting that nothing should be said or done that opens up even a tissue-wide gap between the trans-Atlantic partners. It is no surprise that Tony Blair takes this view; he appears to want to outsource British foreign policy to the NSC. It is more of a surprise when others go along with it.

A prime example of this approach occurred over the so-called Road Map for Peace in the Middle East, originally intended to chart a route to a peaceful settlement. The Road Map, despite some mind-boggling rewriting of history by the Bush administration, was a European initiative: It was largely written by the Danish government when Denmark had the presidency of the European Union. Its original insight was that we should not try to creep up on peace by sequential steps ("After you, Yasir"; "No, after you, Ariel").

Instead of waiting on each side to deem that the other had done something sufficient to merit a positive response, we advocated parallelism: The two sides should move forward at the same time, meeting a series of rendezvous, with deadlines. The machinery to oversee and promote this diplomatic journey was to be the "Quartet" of America, Russia, the United Nations, and the European Union.

We should have smelled trouble the first time we went to Washington to talk about the plan. The State Department wanted some changes -- fair enough. But the mood elsewhere was more unsettling. We arrived in Washington within days of Elliot Abrams' appointment as President Bush's principal adviser on the Israeli-Palestinian situation. Moreover, when we went to the White House, the president, with his implacably grim vice president seated beside him, told us how much he favored "a" road map. Was this some curious and inadvertent grammatical slip? We soon found out.

To his credit, the president spoke up for a Palestinian state, but then seemed to endorse the "facts on the ground" -- the sort of settlement activity on the West Bank that would make peace increasingly unlikely. The road map moved from the passenger seat to the glove compartment to the trunk of the car, and eventually we seemed to forget all about it.

As for the Quartet, that became a forum for hearing what the United States was proposing to do. Or, more usually, not do. The Quartet was called, with a calculated sense of derision, "the Quartet sans trios" by Amr Moussa, the secretary-general of the Arab League. If you lash yourself to a vacuum, then a vacuum is what your own policy amounts to. Mostly, European policy has been to have another meeting of the Quartet, with family photos and communiqués. Better, perhaps, to save on the air travel and worry about the carbon footprint.

So what should happen?

Europe should speak up for engagement -- but of what sort? First, we should make it clear that we will deal with the Palestinian national unity government and provide funds again for its finance ministry in the trusted and capable hands of Saleem Fayyad. The only provisos should be that the Palestinian government has to move to prevent rocket attacks against Israel, has to work for the release of Corporal Gilad Shalit, and has to commit itself to President Mahmoud Abbas as the principal Palestinian negotiator, with any settlement by him being accepted if it is agreed to in a referendum or through a similar democratic process.

Second, we should press for direct peace talks between Israel and Syria. The United States cannot have a policy in the Middle East if it refuses to talk to some of the principal actors in the bloody drama. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi deserves a pat on the back for recognizing that.

Third, Europe should speak out more clearly against further settlement activity on the West Bank. Planned settlements east of Jerusalem would simply make it impossible to construct a viable Palestinian state.

Fourth, European leaders should call for a conference involving Israel, Palestine, the Quartet members, and senior Arab League representatives to attempt to put a final agreement on a fast track. Europe should welcome what the Arab League has begun to do in the region and beyond -- to set out the (repeated) terms of its Beirut declaration, which offers full recognition of Israel in return for an agreement on borders and refugees -- and we should press for more publicity for this initiative by Arab states in Israel itself.

Fifth, the European Union should not go weak at the knees whenever Washington takes a step that is ill-judged or dangerous. The way the United States egged on Israel to bomb Hezbollah in Lebanon -- the "birth pangs" of a new Middle East, as I recall -- was a vast mistake, not least for Israel. If that was a way of demonstrating friendship for Israel, then heaven help this brave, democratic, and pluralistic country.

Perhaps the best way Europe can help bring peace to the Middle East is simply by raising the political price of doing nothing -- or worse still, of pursuing policies that encourage some Israeli politicians to think they have Washington's implicit permission to veto anything that might bring a fair peace nearer.

It's not as though the Bush years have produced any progress -- except perhaps the progress of despair that comes with weariness at continued killing, with more deaths in the Middle East since 2001 than in the eight years of the previous presidency.

Those who want peace cannot kid themselves that all will necessarily be different with a change of policy after a Democratic presidential victory in 2008. Senator Clinton hardly inspires confidence on this issue, and Senator Obama had to run for cover after observing what any visitor can see with his or her own eyes: that the Palestinians do suffer terribly today -- as, of course, do too many Israelis.

Present policies lead nowhere except to more deaths and to the destruction of more hope. Should Europe continue to think its role is to whistle past the graveyard, hoping for better news while secretly fearing the worst? It may not be popular to say it, but while the road to a peace in Jerusalem did not lead through Baghdad, the road to a more peaceful Middle East certainly demands -- early in the journey, at least -- a peaceful settlement between Palestine and Israel.

I want to see a prosperous and democratic Israel, reflecting values that most of us share on either side of the Atlantic, living at peace with its neighbors -- the sort of peace that the Geneva Initiative would have brought. That is not an anti-Israeli statement, or a pro-Arab one. It is a pro-peace argument, with an outcome that the United States and Europe should recognize is hugely in their own interest.

What, after all, is the alternative?