May 16, 2011 | Standpoint

Eastern Mispromise

Now does not appear to be the best moment for a new Middle East peace initiative. President Barack Obama's stubborn insistence on a full Israeli freeze of construction projects beyond the Green Line has given the Palestinian Authority an excellent excuse not to resume peace talks with Israel. Negotiations have not been seriously conducted for two years and there is no prospect of resumption any time soon.

The wave of uprisings engulfing the region has further reduced room for compromise. Even under a different coalition, Israel could hardly be expected to make concessions when the entire order seems poised to collapse; when its peace treaty with Egypt is under serious strain, Jordan's monarchy is under internal assault, Iran's ascendance appears unstoppable and America's influence seems eclipsed.

The Palestinians are hardly in the mood for concessions. The settlement issue has been a convenient excuse for them to avoid negotiations with Israel. But the truth is that their current strategy of institution-building at home and a delegitimisation campaign against Israel internationally rests on the idea that Palestinian goals can be maximised by unilateral action. Their current strategy aims to gain support and recognition for a unilateral declaration of independence that should obviate the need for negotiations. There is no desire to engage Israel seriously for the sake of compromise.

Even if the Palestinian Authority changed its mind and sought dialogue with Israel, the Guardian's craven campaign last January to undermine the PA by revealing Palestinian records of recent Israeli-Palestinian negotiations has reduced its already limited room for manoeuvre. And the protests in the Middle East have left the Palestinians without diplomatic backing and the pressure of friendly Arab regimes who in the past would cajole, sway and corner the Palestinians on America's behalf.

In the name of human rights, America appears to have abdicated its role as the main regional power. Its influence, already damaged by two years of Obama's diplomatic incompetence, is now diminished by the turmoil. It has abandoned trusted allies for the sake of uncertain change and its involvement, alongside Britain, in a war that lacks a clear mission. Only a fool would believe that now is the best time to extract a compromise from the warring sides.

Enter the European Union. With Foreign Secretary William Hague leading a European peace initiative, there will be a concerted effort to use the Quartet (EU, US, Russia and the UN) to draft a peace treaty the parties will adopt. That the EU is hoping to exploit America's declining influence to propose a European initiative is both predictable and lamentable. Success is highly unlikely.
Historically, any attempt to impose a solution from external forces has invariably failed. Failures have routinely unleashed violence that would later make compromise more difficult. By contrast, compromises between the warring sides have been more successful in working out a solution. If international mediation ever helped, as in the case of Camp David in 1979 or Oslo in 1993, it sealed a deal between willing sides, rather than imposing it on recalcitrant parties.

As seen in Libya, Europe cannot prompt such dramatic diplomatic breakthroughs on its own. It also lacks the unity to agree on such momentous foreign policy initiatives. But Europeans believe there to be both urgency and opportunity on their side. They mistakenly believe that a swift resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict can help stabilise the region's situation, and that, conversely, a lack of resolution could contribute to a dramatic escalation if things go wrong in places like Egypt. The opportunity is offered by American eclipse and the resulting possibility that European enthusiasm for a solution can carry the day. The opposite is true.

No country that would have to take serious risks (not only Israel but all states with rising Islamic parties or a challenge to their rulers from restive populations) will be willing to make even minimal concessions until the dust settles. Besides, Europe does not carry the weight of America. It cannot offer credible guarantees that both sides desperately need if a deal is to be successful. A new peace initiative will merely prompt a blame game while it is ongoing and a new threat of violence once it fails — it has happened in the past with deadly punctuality.

The current turmoil in the Middle East means many things — mainly the moral bankruptcy of four decades of European foreign policy, including the morbid obsession with forcing Israel into ever-growing concessions for the sake of an elusive peace that exists only in the Western mind.

Europe should approach the subject with humility but will not. Brace yourselves. The EU peace initiative is about to begin.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies