A fruitful mission…but is the Middle East ripe for peace?

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Series Details Vol.7, No.43, 22.11.01, p6-7
Publication Date 22/11/2001
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Date: 22/11/01

AN EU delegation, led by Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, visited the Middle East last weekend in an attempt to relaunch the peace process. David Cronin travelled with the "troika" and kept a diary of events.

Friday, 16 November

Belgium's government jet is mid-way between Brussels and Cairo and a posse of reporters is huddled around Javier Solana.

The EU's foreign policy chief looks desperately in need of a holiday but is embarking on his umpteenth "mission" to the Middle East. His catchphrase tonight is the "new dynamic" needed to relaunch the region's peace process. Solana is optimistic.

Yet it's obvious from all the conversations taking place that while the Union might try to sustain this dynamic, it will not be setting it in motion. That falls to America.

On Monday, Secretary of State Colin Powell is expected to make what's been dubbed "the vision statement". Solana has been briefed on its contents but cannot divulge them. We surmise, though, that Powell will elaborate on President Bush's unprecedented use of the word Palestine the previous week. Recognising the Palestinians' right to a state of their own in such terms was a quantum leap for a US president - especially one who refuses to meet Yasser Arafat.

Europe, explains one official, needs to show a common sense of purpose with the Americans. It would be a "fiasco" if conflicting signals came from each side of the Atlantic.

But when we arrive in the ornately decorated Cairo Sheraton, Belgium's Foreign Minister Louis Michel bluntly rejects suggestions that he's come to the Middle East simply to wait for Powell's speech.

He stresses that if the EU is less effective than the US on the world stage, it's not due to "bad governance" but the fact the Union's foreign policy is still under construction. But he concedes that Europe can achieve little unless Washington also engages in the quest for peace. "This is not a conflict we can settle like that," he remarks, clicking his fingers.

Meanwhile, a singer in the hotel bar is crooning her way through Sade's 1980s hit Smooth Operator. I muse on which EU figurehead is best described by the song's title.

Saturday, 17 November

Massive posters of President Hosni Mubarrak line the road to his palace. It's an exquisite building with a creamy façade, marble stairways and stained glass windows.

A local reporter explains to me that Mubarrak is an "old-style leader", constantly flanked by advisers. My new friend says he sees him every day, which is more than can be said for the EU press pack. The president doesn't see fit to grace the visiting journalists with his presence.

As always, Belgian premier Guy Verhofstadt begins the ritual post-meeting press conference by describing the encounter as "fruitful" (his favourite word, it would appear). Both sides agreed that the formula for solving the region's woes must be based on a twin package of establishing a Palestinian state and guarantees for Israel's safety.

But Egypt's Foreign Minister Ahmad Maher is far less restrained. The insistence by Ariel Sharon's government that seven days of "total quiet" must proceed peace talks is "total nonsense", he says. Commission chief Romano Prodi focuses on the help that the Union can offer Egypt. Tourism revenue in the land of the Pyramids has fallen by up to € 2 billion in the past year. The Egyptians need money to cushion the blow and Prodi is receptive to their requests.

He is less prepared for a question about the country's record on human rights.

This morning's papers carry reports on five-year prison sentences meted out to 23 men for "forming a group which aims to exploit the Islamic religion to propagate extremist ideas". The precise nature of their offence? They had frequented The Queen Boat, a floating nightclub with a mostly gay clientele.

After Prodi confirms that the EU team hadn't voiced any concerns over the case, I ask if this means the Union is willing to ignore human rights violations in countries considered valuable allies in the fight against terrorism. He replies with an emphatic "No".

We fly to Tel Aviv, then by road between Israel's two main cities. On the way we see The Star of David fluttering beside the Stars and Stripes on some hilltops. The two flags mark the outer extremities of Jewish settlements in the Palestinian territories.

In East Jerusalem, our bus stops at a checkpoint. It's manned by Israel's security forces but the boulders on the hillside above are painted in the green and white colours of Palestine. The driver keeps the engine running but refuses to go any further because he doesn't have bullet-proof windows. Company policy, he explains (his firm's logo is emblazoned on the side of the bus in unmissable Hebrew).

After what feels like an eternity, the driver agrees to go to Ramallah's outskirts with a police escort. Another bus, albeit one with Arabic markings, is waiting for us there to take us to Yasser Arafat's headquarters.

It's dark and drizzly and everything's encircled by barbed wire and men with machine guns. PLO workers usher us in to give us some food. It consists of cold chips, salad and sandwiches. It's far from appetising, but I'm famished so I devour it.

The troika have already joined Arafat for Iftar, the meal that breaks the Ramadan fast. We're not told what they ate but when Verhofstadt joins Arafat on the podium for the briefing afterwards, he immediately declares the encounter as "fruitful". Arafat heaps lavish praise on the EU for seeking to resume the peace process and for its economic support for his people. Europe has helped his people through their most difficult crisis, he states.

He appeals for an end to what he calls the siege imposed by Israel, the "criminal assassinations" by its forces and the expansion of settlements in Palestinian territories. He also expresses firm commitment to the recommendations by a committee headed by former US Senator George Mitchell for relaunching the peace process and says he's ready to start immediate talks with Ariel Sharon's government.

Peace is the "strategic option" of the Palestinian people and, according to recent opinion polls, it's also the preferred option of most ordinary Israelis.

Verhofstadt strives to empathise with the hardship endured by the Palestinians. There is an urgent need, he says, to lift the barriers preventing them from moving freely around the West Bank and Gaza Strip. "People need the possibility to live their lives and start economic activities again."

He refers to the talks held between Arafat and Israel's Foreign Minister Shimon Peres in Brussels 12 days ago. Since then we have seen 12 days of reduced violence, he comments. The period has been "quiet", he adds, in what appears to be a reference to Sharon's insistence that peace talks must be preceded by seven days of "total quiet".

Sunday, 18 November

No matter how many times you see them, photographs of the Holocaust always have a chilling effect. Located on the Mount of Remembrance, the Yad Vashem centre is a fitting tribute to the victims of Hitler's genocide.

Our guide points out a picture of Russian Jews standing naked as they await their execution. They were deliberately stripped bare, she explains, so that soldiers carrying out the order to kill could regard their captives as all being the same, not as individual human beings.

Yet the most curious thing about the museum is how the language used in its explanatory notices mirrors that used by Palestinians to described their suffering in the present day. Naively perhaps, I ask the guide if any group from the Palestinian Authority has ever visited here. No, she responds, but agrees when I say that a visit by senior PLO figures could be useful as a bridge-building exercise with Israel.

The EU delegation is brought to the sombre and cavernous Hall of Remembrance. Wearing skull caps, they stand in reverential silence before the "eternal flame" as Prodi and Verhofstadt lay wreaths.

We proceed to the memorial for the 1.5 million children slain by the Nazis. Some of their angelic faces are captured in the grainy portraits at its entrance. Inside a recorded message lists victims' names and nationalities as we walk through a room with rows of candles.

Solana is visibly moved by the experience. Before returning to his car, he gives the tour guide a gentle hug, the kind of supportive embrace you give to the bereaved at a funeral.

More wreaths have to be laid at Yitzak Rabin's grave. His murder by a fellow Jew in 1995 was a crushing blow but it's hard not to reflect that Sharon could do worse than emulate the one-time hardliner who later sought peace with his Muslim neighbours.

Back in the grandeur of the King David Hotel, the security guard enquires: "Are you carrying any weapons?" It is the first time I have ever been asked that question and the signal that Sharon is due to arrive shortly.

At lunch all the talk is about how he is incensed at the screening of a documentary, "The Accused" by Belgium's state broadcaster RTBF two days prior. The programme cites evidence suggesting Sharon was partly responsible for the massacres of 800 refugees in the Beirut suburbs of Sabra and Chatila when he was defence minister in 1982. (Israel's Lebanese allies the Phalangists carried out the killings).

A spokesman for Foreign Minister Shimon Peres (often Sharon's nemesis) argues it cannot be a coincidence the programme was screened shortly before a Belgian court is due to hear a case brought by 23 Lebanese groups, accusing Sharon of crimes against humanity. He accepts that Verhofstadt has no control over his country's media but claims the broadcast is part of a concerted campaign to turn public opinion against Israel.

Appearing before a packed press conference, Sharon begins by welcoming his visitors to "the capital of the Jewish people for more than 3,000 years". (He doesn't mention that it's also the cradle of two other major religions.)

His nation is peace-seeking, he claims, but we must not forget that for the past year it has faced brutal terrorism. He alleges that Arafat is its source and that the Palestinian leader heads a coalition that includes Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hizbollah.

But the claim that rankles most with the EU leaders is that they could be helping terrorists buy arms by transferring funds directly to the Palestinian Authority. Prodi firmly rebuts the allegation. The Union is the Palestinians' "most important partner in economic life" and none of the € 200 million it has given them in the past year has been spent on firearms, he insists.

Sharon pours scorn on reports there have been 12 days of relative calm. A total of 268 terrorist attacks have taken place in that period, he counters. Israel has apprehended 55 suspects, the Palestinian Authority only one. Inevitably, the tensions between Sharon and Peres are raised. Tourism minister Benny Elon has threatened to withdraw his right-wing National Union from the ruling coalition over his cabinet colleagues' recent admission in New York that "there is support" in Israel for the foundation of a Palestinian state, even if it's not yet government policy.

Sharon tries not to get drawn into the spat, saying he sometimes agrees to disagree with Peres. Whether or not his compatriots want to grant statehood to Palestinians would only be established if the matter is put to them in a plebiscite.

Later, Solana is accosted by a TV interviewer, who wants to know his views on Sharon's call for seven days of "total quiet". In remarkably candid terms, he dubs it a "stupidity", providing sub-editors at the Ha'aretz newspaper with a neat headline for tomorrow's edition.

Strolling behind the hotel, I notice that an adjoining street has been cordoned off. I approach one of the police vans and an officer explains there has been a bomb explosion. Fortunately, nobody was injured.

I wander down to the Western Wall, where Orthodox Jews and soldiers stand touching the wall of the old temple, praying and kissing it. The Arabic wail from the mosque overhead and the chatter of some American visitors puncture the silence.

Monday, 20 September

Verhofstadt's spokesman Alain Gerlache is an angry man. This morning's edition of Le Soir reports that the prime minister was called to a second meeting with Sharon last night. According to the Brussels daily, its sole purpose was to discuss the case against Sharon in Belgium.

Once our flight has taken off, Verhofstadt comes down to the "economy class" section of the plane. He gives journalists an account of the evening discussions, insisting that the pending trial was only mentioned in passing.

He says Sharon accepted there had been a sharp decline in violence in Bethlehem and Ramallah but the reduction wasn't as great in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. After the meeting, Verhofstadt phoned Arafat and asked him to use his influence to calm tempers in those territories.

Despite the contemptuous tone of Sharon's remarks about the EU earlier, Verhofstadt contended that his counterpart's request for an extra meeting proved he was taking the Union seriously.

Proof that Syria's president Bashar al-Assad is no fan of press freedom is provided as soon as we touch down in Damascus. A note is handed to journalists: "Foreign press is not allowed to go to presidential palace."

So we're driven past rows of grim Soviet-style tower blocks to the city's "rich quarter" (our tour guide's words) and the Meridien Hotel. No Syrian representative turns up for the press conference that follows the meeting.

It's quite a lacklustre affair, with Verhofstadt emphasising that Syria is committed to the fight against terrorism (but is scant on details about its exact contribution). The only time it becomes vaguely lively is when Prodi condemns Sharon's slur about EU money going to Palestinian arms more robustly than he did yesterday. "There is no substance in the allegation," he says. "We know where our money is going."

The EU delegation flies on to Lebanon to meet its president and prime minister but everyone's real focus is on the speech Colin Powell is about to deliver in Louisville, Kentucky. After a whistle-stop tour of leaders' palaces, we're driven at breakneck speed to the Belgian ambassador's residence. Speaking to TV cameras, a beaming Verhofstadt declares the EU and US are adopting a "common approach" to the Middle East.

Privately, however, there's much discussion that Powell's speech omitted any reference to Sharon's seven-day call. One of Verhofstadt's advisers says the Union isn't disappointed as Powell has said the most important thing is that a

"100 effort" on ending violence is taken. Sharon, on the other hand, is demanding a 100 result.

It's time to head back to Brussels. The atmosphere on the plane is mixed. Everyone looks exhausted, but there's hope in the air, too.

Report of a visit to the Middle East by an EU delegation led by Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt, in an attempt to relaunch the peace process, 16-18 November 2001.

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