Time for Europe to think bold thoughts

Europe has a lot to gain from being inventive. A Turkish-EU troop offer could help unlock Gaza – and the Middle East peace process

Time for European
boldness. A Turkish-EU troop offer could help unlock Gaza
– and the Middle East peace process

Catherine Ashton has not had the easiest ride since
taking over as the EU’s new foreign policy ‘tsarina’, and it is set to get
harder. She is about to embark upon her first foreign trip in office, to a part
of the world not known for giving diplomats and politicians an easy ride: the Middle East. She is likely to switch firmly into what
politicians call ‘listening mode’, trying to dodge trouble. But this might not
be a time for diplomatic silence and nifty footwork; perhaps this is the time
for Lady Ashton to be bold – on her own and the EU’s behalf.

If she remains silent, Lady Ashton risk confirming a
view that she is a foreign policy student in a world of professors. If she
engages, she faces rebuttal. After all, even President Obama found the region
immune to his effort and charm. But if she takes the opportunity of her Middle
Eats visit to show some courage she may make the EU the kind the foreign policy
player it so yearns to be.

The question then is how bold to go. There is a fine
line to tread between innocuous and enterprising, between inventive and naïve. The
key to success is usually lies in exploiting existing openings, building on past
experiences and expanding the circle of stakeholders. One bold idea might accomplish
all this: suggesting the deployment of 2000 European soldiers in a hybrid
mission with Turkey to
monitor the border between Gaza, Israel and Egypt, as an integral part of an intra-Palestinian
reconciliation deal.

The idea of sending European troops is not new. Back
in 2007 France’s President
Nicolas Sarkozy argued that the EU should take the lead in creating an
international peacekeeping force which could replace the Israeli army in the West Bank as part of a peace deal. Think tanks like the
Centre for European Reform have also long argued that the EU as part of
security guarantees to Israel
should offer to send peacekeepers.

But these ideas have always run to ground on the rocks
of European timidity, Israeli resistance and intra-Palestinian gridlock. Fear
of European casualties, and the risk of mission failure have precluded any
European action. To Israeli defence planners, the softly-softly doctrine of the
European element of the UN’s Lebanon force does not auger well for how an EU
force would operate in the West Bank and Gaza. To them, a worst case scenario
would see Israeli action constrained yet Hamas rearmed.

This time, though, it could be different. The
situation is worse than it has been for a long time. Yet while there may be no
sign of substantive movement between the Israelis and Palestinians (though indirect
negotiations conducted by US special envoy George Mitchell may move ahead) there
are a number of positive developments, which if supported internationally could
produce an intra-Palestinian break-through – itself a prerequisite for a larger
peace process.

The Obama administration has suggested to Israel
that easing the Gaza
blockade would help counter the fallout from the Goldstone report on alleged
war crimes during Operation Cast Lead. Meanwhile, Nabil Shaath became the first
high-ranking Fatah official to visit Gaza
since 2007. He met with Hamas officials, sparking rumours that the two parties
may be ready to reconcile, perhaps in time for next month’s Libya Arab Summit. This
visit should be read together with a recent speech by Palestinian Authority
Prime Minister Salam al-Fayyad, who said that “it was essential that
“our country be reunified,” and that lifting the blockade of the Gaza Strip
would go a long way toward enabling the PA to reassert control there.

It is too early to know whether anything will come of these overtures. But an offer
to deploy a hybrid EU-Turkish mission to monitor Gaza’s borders, in exchange for re-opening
these to trade, could be just the impetus required to induce a Palestinian Unity
Government. Deploying armed soldiers would certainly hold out the promise of
alleviating the Gazans’ suffering, strengthening the hand of the Palestinian
Authority with its own public, and generating some Arab support for the peace

The initiative has the added benefit of potentially bringing
Turkey back into a
constructive Middle East role, while laying
the foundations for a strategic EU-Turkey link not focused exclusively on EU
accession. Turkish alienation from both Israel
and the EU has been a serious concern for Jerusalem
and Brussels.
An offer of a joint mission might help bring the Ankara government back into a constructive
role.  If an EU-Turkish mission could be
run by a senior Turkish official, then all the better.

What would the parties think of such an idea? If the
presence of EU peacekeepers would allow the re-opening of Gaza’s borders, Hamas could be keen on the idea.
The PA has long called for EU troops to be deployed. For its part, Israel could be
induced to support a mission if it allayed fears of militant groups like Hamas
rearming. That would require deploying a well-armed mission with a robust
mandate – hence the need for 2000 armed soldiers, not a larger version of the previous
unarmed EU border mission.

The final question is what Europeans would think. Deploying
troops in Gaza
would a lot riskier than patrolling the Balkans, the EU’s main military job
until now. Radical factions within Gaza
might not want to stop using force. Israel may trample on the EU
mission if it feels threatened. For Europeans, sensitive to casualties in Afghanistan, Gaza might not be their mission of choice.

It would be wrong for Lady Ashton to offer up an EU
mission. For one thing she cannot make an offer to deploy EU troops; she
commands no soldiers of her own and a mission to Gaza, particularly a hybrid one, would
require serious negotiations and preparation. But if she were to float the idea
while on her first visit she would be able to return to Brussels
with a clear idea of what could be possible in the Middle
East quicksand. That, in itself, may be the best possible way to
build a new Middle East role for the EU.



The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.


ECFR Alumni · Former Senior Policy Fellow

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