it is a pleasure for me to be here today and discuss a question that deeply concerns me and which I have always had a close interest in. For these reasons I would like to warmly thank the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and Meseuro for organizing this dialogue with such distinguished interlocutors, and holding it in this significant location and before this prominent audience.
Despite the many failures of the international community in trying to find a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, or perhaps exactly because of these failures, I deem it essential to discuss the course of action that the European Union should follow in the future to contribute to the achievement of the goal of a long lasting peace in the Middle East.
In fact, the conflicting parties are obviously not able to reach a settlement by themselves and the contribution that the United States can give has so far proved to be insufficient. Washington finds it difficult to act as the honest broker in this context.
As Europeans we shall not give up the task, albeit difficult, of bringing about a Palestinian State living in peace alongside the State of Israel, while, at the same, time ensuring Israel’s security. These are goals that the EU member States have pursued, with swinging interest and commitment, since the early 1980s and the European Council confirmed them in last December summit, declaring that “the legitimacy of the State of Israel and the right of Palestinians to achieve statehood must never be called into question”.
However, I believe, that declarations are not enough. Too often the European Union has relied on declaratory policies, while entrusting the United States with the task of negotiating and controlling on the implementation of agreements, walking away from its own responsibilities. Too often it has preferred the role of bystander rather than that of player.
When President Obama took office in 2009, it appeared that a new convergence between the US approach towards the Middle Eastern conflict and the European one could be eventually achieved. Nevertheless, this convergence did not turn into concrete progress. A scholar recently wrote “if Obama has in many ways played a European tune in his approach to the Arab-Israeli conflict, he has largely done so without or regardless of the EU orchestra”. [Daniel Möckli]
Last year breakdown of the US led negotiations provides us with new reasons to encourage the European Union’s involvement in this effort. Despite the fact that the chances for success look still so slim and that the context is far from encouraging; despite the fact that some commentators argue that Europeans are irrelevant in this field or, even worse, assume that EU policies may harm the chances of a settlement. I strongly reject such assumptions. The European Union and its member States have given and have the potentials to offer in the future a unique contribution for the attainment of peace in the Middle East.
The European Union should assume its responsibility towards the people of Palestine and Israel – people with whom Europeans have deep and longtime ties, with whom we share a historical and cultural heritage. But these are not the only reasons why the European Union should seriously engage in the search of a durable solution to the conflict. The EU has only to gain from the resolution of the conflict and much to lose from its persistence.
We are aware, in fact, that peace in the Middle East is an essential precondition for European security, for security within the Mediterranean, for the growth and prosperity of the Mediterranean basin. The EU member States have wide-ranging interests in the Arab countries, therefore neglecting an issue that is considered crucial by the Arab partners is not an option, and the maintenance of the current status quo is an obstacle to the building of mutually beneficial relations among the Mediterranean countries, as the recent experience of the Union for the Mediterranean has clearly proved.
Even more than that, the conflict in the Middle East has fed the harsh contraposition between Islam and the Western world and this, as we all know, has been a cause of insecurity on a international scale.
The European Union’s action in the Middle East – as in many other conflict areas – has been hindered by the significant and persistent differences that exist among its member States and among the member States and the EU institutions. This has been a serious obstacle in the establishment of the European Union as a credible global player. Yet, when the European States have been able to overcome their divisions and their distinctive interests, converging towards common initiatives, speaking with a single voice, they have reached considerable outcomes.
In 2006, as Minister of Foreign Affairs of the second Prodi government, I have been witness and, indeed, one of the actors of a very positive example of the successes that the European States can achieve when the willingness to work together prevail on self interests and calculations.
During the crisis in Lebanon, the international community, following the European initiative and in spite of the reluctance of the Israeli government, was able to prompt the Security Council of the United Nations to issue Resolution 1701, which called for the immediate end of hostilities, the disarmament of Hezbollah, the withdrawal of Israel from Lebanon, and for the deployment of an enlarged United Nations Interim Force (UNIFIL).
The situation in Lebanon is still today filled with tensions. Yet, UNIFIL doubtless contributed to the maintenance of security in the country. Two years later, when hostilities broke out in the Gaza Strip, it was the presence of European troops that avoided the opening of a second front in Israel.
All this is not to say that the European Union has the potential, on its own, to impose a solution on the Israelis and the Palestinians. But that the EU can and must produce much more than the lowest common denominator of the twenty-seven different positions of its member States. That deeper EU-US dialogue on the future steps is essential. And that the European Union must decisively and consistently engage and fully use its leverage in order to make a peaceful settlement of the conflict eventually possible.