Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy have signaled that they want their governments as well the European Union (EU) to pursue a more activist policy in the Middle East. But unlike their predecessors Gerhard Schroeder and Jacques Chirac, they insist on working together with Washington when dealing with the challenges in the Levant, including the Israel/Palestine conflict, and the Persian Gulf, and have stressed their commitment to the security of Israel.
Merkel and Sarkozy and their colleagues at the EU will soon have an opportunity to walk the walk, instead of just talking the talk on the Middle East. The election of a new U.S. President would provide an opportunity for the Europeans and the Americans to start drawing the outline of a common post-Iraq-War strategy in the Middle East.
Instead of the transatlantic non-strategy pursued by President George W. Bush and his neoconservative ideologues which was based on the notion that the Americans do the driving in the Middle East while asking the Germans, French, and Brits to change the oil and check the tires, the new White House occupant will need to invite the Europeans to actually start taking part in steering Euro-American policy in the Middle East.
The Europeans, on their part, will have to recognize that when you gain more control over a policy, you also need to share more responsibilities in implementing it. In the context of the Middle East, the EU will not be able to continue its free-riding on American policy in the region: benefiting from the U.S. political-military role there while distancing themselves from the aspects of American policy that run contrary to their interests.
Even Merkel and Sarkozy, notwithstanding their rhetoric about cooperation with Washington in the Middle East, have failed to come up with a coherent strategy — that will also require European investment, measured in money and even troops — for managing Iraq if and when the U.S. decides to reduce its military presence there or for that matter, for trying to resolve the Israel/Palestine conflict. In fact, by rejecting the membership of Westernized Turkey to the EU, the German and French leaders have weakened Euro-American leverage in the Middle East.
Setting aside the complex problems in the Persian Gulf, including Iraq and Iran, that will have to occupy a central place in any reinvigorated transatlantic strategy in the Middle East, Merkel and Sarkozy could attempt to seek a creative diplomatic opening in the Levant, more specifically, by reviving the moribund "peace process" in the Holy Land by announcing their readiness to open negotiations with Israel and an independent Palestinian state which could lead to the gradual accession of Israel/Palestine into the EU.
While both the Israelis and the Palestinians regard Washington as central to any resolution of their conflict, the EU remains marginalized in the process. It is both the largest provider of aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel's most important trade partner. However, the EU has failed to translate that economic leverage into diplomatic influence.
Signaling to the Israelis and the Palestinians that a peaceful resolution to their conflict could be a ticket for admission into the EU would be more than just enticing them with economic rewards. Conditioning Israel's entry into the EU on its agreement to withdraw from the occupied territories and dismantle the Jewish settlements there would strengthen the hands of those Israelis who envision their state not as a militarized Jewish ghetto but as a Westernized, liberal community. Moreover, the tragic fate of the European Jewry served as the driving force for the creation of Israel, and welcoming the Jewish state into the European community makes historical and moral sense.
At the same time, the Palestinian people would be forced to choose between the radical Islamic agenda promoted by Hamas and a reform-oriented program that a new Palestinian leadership working together with the EU would have to pursue as part of negotiations on accession. This program would involve the economic reconstruction of the West Bank and Gaza through investment and aid and the creation of Palestinian-Israeli-EU business partnerships. In the same way that the establishment of NAFTA produced pressure for reforms in Mexico, the evolution of trade and institutional ties between the EU, Israel, and eventually Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, could lay the foundations for movement towards peace and economic and political change in the entire Levant, a region with close historic, geographic, and demographic ties to Europe.
Critics would describe such an offer to bring Israel and Palestine into the EU as a diplomatic stunt and there is no doubt that the goal would take many years to achieve. But by adopting such a strategy of long-term constructive engagement in the Middle East, the EU could try, through the use of diplomatic and economic resources, to achieve the kind of goals that the Americans have tried to advance by using military power: challenging the status quo in the Middle East and pursuing peace and political/economic reform there. It's a strategy that will complement instead of just challenge American policy and it will entail huge political and economic costs on the part of the EU, the kind that it will need to pay if it wants to occupy the driver's seat in the Middle East.