Thursday, August 03, 2006

EU in Lebanon: semantic bow to Washington and Tel Aviv or constructive pragmatism?

This blog entry presents an attempt to offer our readers a quick overview of the international press reporting on the diplomatic activities evolving over the war in Lebanon, especially concentrating on the analysis of the EU and EU member states foreign policy making related to the war and briefly outlining the US position.

Instead of an immediate cease-fire Israel has sent around 7,000 troops into Lebanon as part of the military campaign aimed at pushing the Hezbollah militia back from the border before a cease-fire is declared and a multinational force deployed, reports NY Times. Simultaneously Hezbollah has launched 200 rockets into Israel. According to reporting unlike the massive tank ground invasion of 1982, this time Israel is combining a frontal incursion into the Lebanese territory with a deployment of small commando units deep into Lebanese territory. With important military presence of Israeli ground troops in South Lebanon, any international deployment will have to seriously take into consideration Israeli interests before even thinking of deployment. This is the essence of the delay of the cease-fire. Ehud Olmert, Israeli PM said, “We are at the beginning of a political process that in the end will bring a cease-fire under entirely different conditions than before.” He also added that Israel would continue to fight until the international deployment. Newspapers report that France, the United States and Britain are close to agreement on a draft UN resolution that could lead to the deployment of an international force in southern Lebanon after a ceasefire between Israel and Hizbollah, a senior British official said. A lot has been said (from unnamed diplomatic sources from the EU) on a two-resolution approach. The first resolution, expected in the coming days, would establish a cessation of hostilities and lay out a political framework for the future. The second, to follow within two weeks of the first, would create a buffer zone in the south and authorize an international force to patrol it, and set out terms for a sustainable cease-fire, including disarming Hezbollah, establishing the borders of Lebanon, preventing arms shipments into the country and extending the authority of the Lebanese Army over all its territory. It is doubtful as to what would happen after the passage of the first resolution, what military force would remain in the buffer zone to enforce the truce after passage of the first resolution? Many mention the possibility of sending troops to have the enhanced UNIFIL, patrol the buffer zone until the deployment of a larger force. An alternative, preferred by the Israelis, would be to have Israeli Defence Forces (IDF) control the buffer zone until the deployment, which would in practice mean that the hostilities would last until the actual weighty international force arrives to Lebanon. The French are against this potion. Massimo D’Alema, Italian Foreign Minister, agrees with the French and expresses reservations versus a strategy of sending troops while the conflict is still in place.

Instead of calling for an immediate ceasefire, Council of the European Union Foreign Ministers, that convened 1 August, called for “an immediate cessation of hostilities, to be followed by a sustainable cease-fire.” Moreover, EU called for a rapid convening of the UN SC in order to define a political solution for the present conflict situation. At the same time Israel does not want to stop military operations until a political solution (acceptable to them) is at the table. The Guardian is harsh in its criticism of the EU Council’s statement, talking about the “collapsed efforts” to end hostilities, “divided EU”, “watered-down statement”, “semantic bow to Washington and Tel Aviv” etc. Le Monde and Speigel also write about the EU Council meeting. Apparently, on one side of the table was France (supported by the Finish Presidency, Sweden, Spain and Greece) who was calling for an immediate "ceasefire", while on the other side of the table Germany, UK, Poland, the Czech Republic managed to play down the statement and call for a "cessation" of hostilities. Everyone is now waiting for the convening of the UN SC, and in the mean time, despite the fact that the UK foreign secretary, Margaret Beckett, refused to accept that the “semantic bow” of the EU Council amounted to a "green light" for Israel to continue its military offensive, Israel does continue do drive into Lebanon with ground troops.

An interesting article of the Italian Corriere Della Sera, entitled “Anglo German axis” describes the nature of the new political alignment between the UK and Germany, arguing, “Italy has nothing to fear from this alliance but only to learn”. Whether interpreting the German position on the conflict in Lebanon as a strategic realignment away from France and versus a stronger transatlantic Europe is an exaggeration it remains to be seen, it can be also argued that Germany is cautious in its approach to this war due to the weight of history, in other words, due to the political impossibility of breaking the taboo of good relationship with Israel. Germany is reluctant, it has been said in the French Figaro to send troops because of its ‘historical’ position versus Israel.

At the same time German press writes that the German foreign minister coming from SPD already broke the historical taboo and hinted at the possibility to send German soldiers to the Middle East, arguably as part of an attempt to court the left wing of SPD but not to render hostile their partners in the Grand Coalition. Yet, deploying Germans at the border with Israel while the hostilities still last would be unthinkable and it seems that the Germans would rather be deployed as part of the same multinational force, later and somewhere at the border with Syria. German PM also mentioned the over deployment problem that is currently burdening the German army.

It would be a fallacy to consider that the UK government is standing firmly behind the strong Transatlantic policy of its PM. As far as the UK internal politics is concerned, claims The Independent, there seems to be a heavy disagreement within the very Cabinet of the UK’ PM Tony Blair. While his foreign secretary preferred for the EU issuing an immediate call for cease fire, Blair was more lenient towards Israel, or better towards the political platform of the US administration, “As he returns to Britain today, Mr Blair will find himself an isolated figure in his own Cabinet over Lebanon. The dissent among senior Labour figures over Britain's approach to the conflict is now being seen as a growing challenge to the authority of the Prime Minister.” There were also signs that the foreign secretary might ask the US to stop using British airports to send military aid to Israel. Jack Straw, the former foreign secretary, publicly disagreed with the policy of Blair, and talking to a Muslim population in the UK, called the Israeli bombing, "disproportionate". There were even gossips, writes the Independent, that Mr Straw was ‘moved’ from the position of Foreign Secretary, on the demand of the US Administration and allegedly “because of the high number of Muslims in his constituency”.

After the 1 August EU Foreing Ministers meeting, the German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier defended the position that a call for an immediate cease-fire did not go through, because it would be rushing things without considering the realistic situation on the ground. After the meeting however, both the French and Finish Foreign Ministers, tried to tone down the disagreement at the Council arguing that, “the most important thing” is that the hostilities end (the Finish) and that he is happy that the EU, “spoke with one voice” (the French). Assessing the exit of the above mentioned EU Council meeting on the crisis in the Middle East, it would be wrong to lament on the lack of unity – it is rather normal that there is disagreement when 25 foreing policies need to reach an agreement on a sensitive geopolitical issue such as the crisis in the middle east. What is on the other hand worrying is a significant lack of coordination in the EU foreign policy towards the larger context of the Lebanon conflict. Namely, while Germans and the UK dialogue with Syria considering it to be “the key to the resolution of the conflict”, France refuses to talk to them and goes to Iran instead. Some unnamed EU diplomats told the Figaro journalist that France acts inconsistently, while it pretends to play the key role in the international peace keeping force to be potentially sent to Lebanon, it refuses to negotiate with the key player in the region Damascus. Many consider that the French attempt, “to play Iran against Syria is very hazardous”. French Foreign Minister said that, “we judge that we do not need to enter into discussion with Syria” and replied to the question whether Javier Solana, The High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, should go to Damascus, “Ce n’est ni d’actualité ni souhaitable”. French daily Liberation is very critical towards the French refusal to negotiate with the Baathist regime of the Syrian President Bachar al-Assad. The French newspaper is questioning the French strategy of referring to Iran when in fact “this country is the true sponsor of Hezbollah”. The article also reports that the French President called the Italian PM Prodi to prevent the establishment of a telephone contact between the Italians and Syria. In an interesting interview to the Italian Corriere Della Sera, Israeli PM Olmert, apart from stating that he was happy to see Italy win the world cup (he did not mention that he was happy to see the French lose), said, “Prodi is a good friend, but what results did his telephone conversation with Assad produce?”

On the other hand it seems that the EU reached a consensus on the support of the French plan for the political resolution of the conflict to be presented at the UN SC. The essence of the French plan is to have an immediate cease fire, to reach a political agreement for Lebanon and to deploy an international peace keeping force in which France is ready to play a leading role said in an interview to the Figaro French Foreign Minister. France’s defence minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie, said in an interview published Tuesday that any international force should have 15,000 to 20,000 troops, far larger than the current UN force posted there, and have rules of engagement that would permit its soldiers to open fire when necessary. On the contrary US President Bush continues talking of supporting the Lebanese “young democracy” and restoring Lebanese military control over its southern border with Israel. The French Plan provides for the future multinational force to be headed by UN, not NATO, because, as the French Foreign Minister argues, NATO led force “risks being considered by the public opinion in the region as a Western force”. There we plans to send a UN military contingent led by France and Turkey. Spanish El Pais writes that Spain is ready to send up to 800 troops to the international military mission in Lebanon. Moreover, Spanish experts consider that the contingent must have 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers, act under Chapter VII of the UN Charter which authorizes the use of force against all parties in order to assure that the previously designed political agreement is respected. The contingent must count on a generous financial and military European contribution, although the presence of some Arab country would be desirable, consider Spanish experts. Spanish seem to agree to a French led contingent but arguably prefer (for reasons of technical and military efficiency) that the operation is directed by NATO. Italy is also said to be ready to send troops to Lebanon but, in line of the Political Programme of the new PM Prodi, strictly as a part of the UN led peace-keeping force. Apart from these countries Belgium, Sweden, Ireland, and as already mentioned, possibly Germany, seem ready to send troops to Lebanon. Turkish army is ready to send up to 1500 soldiers to Lebanon but is asking for a clarification of the mandate of such a force before deployment.

As far as the US is concerned, although he branded the killing of dozens of Lebanese civilians by Israel’s military forces as “awful”, US President Bush continues to see the situation in Manichean terms (that essentially suit his political calculus), for Bush, what we see in the Middle East is the clash of forces of freedom and the forces of terror. US administration remains fully supportive of Israel’s military activities and to counterweight that calls for a “sustainable” cessation of hostilities. Bush also called directly on Iran and Syria to stop supporting terrorism in the Middle East. To counterbalance the mentioning the murder of civilians in Qana, Bush had to add that “…million Israelis are worried about rockets being fired from their, from their neighbour to the north.” US administration can continue to full heartedly support Israel because, as NY Times notes, White House officials are convinced that despite the recent criticisms from the Congress Republicans, “president was not yet facing serious erosion of domestic political support for his approach to the Middle East.” Israeli Jerusalem Post made an interesting analysis of the US policy towards the crisis in Lebanon. According to this report, US support to the Israeli actions comes from the very top of the administration, the White House. What seemed at first as lack of decisiveness of the US Foreign Policy, now appears rather as a “meticulously elaborated strategy”. Jerusalem Post argues that US has a unique opportunity to bring some order in this unstable region, to clean Lebanon of Hezbollah and reinforce the democratic government in Beirut.

[In order to read quoted newspaper articles in different languages using an automatic and free web translator please visit this web site]

[UPDATE: For an interesting report on the crux of French-US/Israel disagreement over the strategy of deployment of the international force see here, "While most of the international community is likely to back the French demand for an immediate end to the fighting, followed by a cease-fire agreement to allow for the deployment of an international force to police such a truce, the U.S. is insisting that there be no demand for a halt to Israel's offensive until a mechanism is in place to disarm Hizballah. These differences are not diplomatic hair-splitting — they reflect profound differences over the fate of Hizballah. The only acceptable outcome for the U.S. is a defeat for Hizballah, because if the movement survives the onslaught with its independent military capability intact, it will be seen throughout the Arab world as the victors.
But the French, who are currently the prime candidates to lead an international force, are making clear that the international community is not going to finish the job for Israel, and will only police a cease-fire when one has been agreed to by the Lebanese government, which includes Hizballah. In other words, it won't try to disarm Hizballah unless Hizballah has agreed to be disarmed. And the only formula likely to achieve that objective on the basis of the current battlefield situation would be an agreement among Lebanese parties to somehow incorporate Hizballah's fighting forces into the Lebanese Army — which may not be quite what the U.S., and certainly not Israel, had in mind."]

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