x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

An Arab gulf grows between US and European friends

As the British foreign secretary made clear last week, the gulf between Europe and America on the Middle East is growing.

It is not often that you hear a British foreign secretary openly expressing frustration with Washington. More surprising is when the speaker is a Conservative, traditionally the party that keeps closest to the Americans. Yet frustration is precisely what William Hague was voicing last week.

While on a tour of North Africa and the Middle East, Mr Hague came closest to saying out loud what European politicians are thinking: the Obama administration dropped the ball in its efforts to force the Israelis to accept a Palestinian state, and the revolutionary turbulence in the Arab world should not be used as an excuse for the US president to forget his commitments. Mr Hague did not speak quite so bluntly, but everyone understood that this was a remarkably forceful statement. "There is a real urgency" to the peace process, he told the BBC. "Recent events mean this is an even more urgent priority, not something we can set on one side because we are so busy thinking about other things."

At the same time, he urged the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to drop his "belligerent" tone when talking about the looming change of regime in Egypt. Israel's supporters in Britain were shocked to hear this from a man who has been a friend of Israel since his teenage years.

Words will not change the mind of Mr Netanyahu. Even at a time of great Israeli strength, both economically and militarily, he was not minded to make the required concessions, so it is out of the question that he would do so now.

What is clear is that the gulf between Europe and America on the Middle East is growing.

It was not always thus. Back in 2006, when Hamas won the Palestinian elections, the Europeans joined America and Israel in boycotting the victor. According to the recently leaked Palestine Papers, it was the British intelligence service which in 2004 drew up a security plan for the Palestinian Authority to crush Hamas by interning its activists, removing Hamas-linked imams and installing hotlines to the Israeli security services.

Things have started to change with the new British government which took over last year. In July the new prime minister, David Cameron, shocked the Israelis by declaring that their blockade of Gaza had turned it into a "prison camp". The pro-Israeli strand of Conservatism no longer controls the party mainstream as it did in the past.

But more significant is the divergence with the US. This may be lost on Washington because Tony Blair, the former prime minister who represents the Middle East Quartet on Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, still endorses the US line. But he is a rarity: people who talk the American talk in an English accent are generally out of power.

Western Europe and the US now inhabit different diplomatic universes as regards the Arabs. For the US the key issues in Egypt are preserving its military assets, ensuring the freedom of navigation through the Suez Canal, and maintaining Israel's strategic advantage over the Arabs. The containment of Iran is never far from Washington's thoughts.

These goals are not surprising: a superpower defends its interests as it sees them. Britain and France would have done the same in the past, but they are no longer serious powers. Western Europe sees Egypt as a neighbour, not an asset.

What Europe needs from Egypt is for it to regain its vitality and provide jobs and prospects for its unemployed graduates. At the moment, as any tourist who has been to Luxor recently will confirm, there are a lot of young men for whom the career ladder starts with trying to marry a lonely English or German matron and start a new life in London making lattes in a coffee shop. At least it is a paid job.

The big European states have growing Muslim minorities. Doing nothing for the Palestinians is an option which will only empower the radical elements.

The presence of these minorities makes the Europeans yearn for a new democratic Egypt. A country where the Muslim Brotherhood plays a full role in a pluralistic system would show that the two sides of the Mediterranean can grow together, not drift further apart.

Apart from these different goals, there are different perceptions. In western Europe the media provides a broader diet. The leaked Palestine Papers have revealed the nakedness of the Israeli claim that there is no partner for peace among the Palestinian Authority. The documents show that the PA was in fact embarrassingly ready to make concessions.

All of this has tipped the political balance in Europe further away from the Israelis. No such change is noticeable in the US.

The US media treated the Palestine Papers with suspicion, as if from a tainted source. In discussing Egypt, the US networks like to inflict Islamic scarecrows on their viewers. They cannot find them at home in the US or in Egypt, so both Fox and CNN have interviewed Anjem Choudary, a British-born loudmouth who represents now more than a few dozen extremists in his now banned Islam4UK group but is adept at sending shivers down the spines of foreigners.

As for Washington, the appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy for Middle East peace in 2009 was seen as the start of a new era of even-handedness. But Mr Mitchell has not visited the region since December. Instead, the most frequent visitor to Israel is now Dennis Ross, who has been at the heart of US Mideast policy for 20 years. His former colleague, Aaron David Miller, wrote in 2009, "Dennis, like myself, had an inherent tendency to see the world of Arab-Israeli politics first from Israel's vantage point."

Mr Miller used the past tense to suggest that US blindness to Israel's faults was over. In the US, that is not the case, and the current turbulence only reinforces that trend.

 

aphilps@thenational.ae