UN Secretary General Kofi Annan seemed particularly satisfied at the press conference in Brussels when the foreign ministers of the 25 European Union member states committed to contribute more that half of the 15,000 soldiers of the revamped UN force in Lebanon. Apart from the significance of this move for the stability of the region and the strengthening of the Lebanese government, the pledge of European soldiers signals an important shift in European Mideast policies: Europe is now willing to get involved militarily in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
The commitment of European forces was a difficult task that was made possible only after rounds of discussions and assurances on the role they will play in Lebanon. The main fear of the EU countries is that their soldiers might get dragged into military operations or become targets of Hezbollah attacks. The foreign policy chief of the Union, Javier Solana, stated that the disarmament of Hezbollah will not be UNIFIL’s task, but rather that of the Lebanese army.
Europe for a long time demanded an enhanced role in the Middle East, where it has historical ties and economic interests. The recent crisis gave the chance to Europe to prove that it really capable of playing an active role as a Middle East broker.
Two circumstances contributed to this development: first, the tying up of a large number of US forces—the traditional power-broker of the region—in Iraq and, second, the failure of a diplomatic solution to the recent war in Lebanon which brought Europe to the forefront, under pressure from the concerned parties (UN, Lebanon, Israel) and the European public opinion.
Outside the narrow framework of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, the UN force in the region will be a test for the ability of third powers to make a positive contribution to peace in the region. The UN has had forces on Israel’s borders for decades but their numbers are small and their mandate and capabilities limited. More so, its record of accomplishment can be rated as poor at best.
The peoples of Israel and Palestine have been exhausted after decades of conflict, which left hundreds of casualties, great economic losses and a wider sense of insecurity and instability. One of the lessons the Israelis drew from the recent war in Lebanon was that unilateral moves do not seem to be successful, mainly due to the power void which they leave behind that can quickly be filled by extremist organizations. The emergence of Hamas and Hezbollah in the Gaza Strip and South Lebanon respectively—areas from which Israel withdrew its forces recently—gives legitimacy to this argument.
One of the biggest problems of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the lack of trust between the two parties, which gets more complicated by the weak structure of the Palestinian Authority. That reality also allows outside parties (e.g. Iran) to get more involved in Palestinian affairs.
If the model for the settlement of the recent crisis in Lebanon proves successful, a similar one could also be offered in the Palestinian case. An international force, which will be deployed on the agreed Israel-Palestinian border, will guarantee the implementation of an agreement on the one hand, and will strengthen the forces of the Palestinian state to exercise jurisdiction, disarm extremist groups and build necessary infrastructure on the other hand.
Europe should match its verbal wishes for a larger role in the developments in the Middle East with actions. UNIFIL may serve a golden opportunity for the European countries to prove that they can play a constructive role and contribute to peace in the region while gaining the confidence of both sides. This is a difficult task that will require leadership and vigilance that were not very common this far in relations to European Policy. But, with this confidence in hand, Europe could in turn guarantee the stability of a Palestinian state, which could possibly emerge in the near future.
This thought is one ray of hope that can come from the recent war in Lebanon. Europe—and indeed the whole international community—should not miss the chance to turn it into a reality.
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