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Multilateralism in the Middle East

01 October 2006

This summer, war swept across the parched lands of the Middle East. Once more, and with a terrible feeling of déjà vu, we were contemplating a fully-fledged, conventional war in Israel and Lebanon. And then, almost unexpectedly, war gave way to a ceasefire and to a fragile peace. This rapid shift – a sign of our hasty times – was the product of several causes: Hezbollah’s resistance, Israel’s hesitant tactics, and international pressure linked to profound disapproval of the war in international public opinion. But let us leave the assessment of last month’s events and the exact combination of causes that led to a sudden peace to future historians.
For us Europeans, what really matter are the lessons we can draw from the crisis. Without any doubt, UNSC Resolution 1701 and its subsequent implementation represent a triumph of multilateralism. As Javier Solana said on 13 August, ‘by definition, a resolution seeking to solve a conflict cannot be perfect but it is important to find formulations that are accepted by the parties’. The resolution was the result of multilateral negotiations. An effective ceasefire and further stabilisation required a robust peacekeeping operation, which could only be mounted with key European contributions. Confronted with a serious internation-al crisis, the Europeans stood ready to help to ensure the security of both Israel and Lebanon. The parties and the international community welcom-ed Europe’s determination. In short, multilateralism, responsibility and commitment prevailed over unilateral quick fixes.
Now the question is whether and to what extent multilateralism can be applied to other Middle Eastern crises. In the last couple of years, it has become increasingly obvious that the Iranian challenge cannot be tackled through unilateral action. Iran’s nuclear ambitions must be curbed but, at the same time, Iran should be given a place in the international community. The Chatham House report ‘Iran, its neighbours and the regional crises’, published in August, clearly shows how important the strategic position of Iran is in western Asia. Even though targeted military strikes are still being considered in Washington, the European approach, which combines dialogue and firmness, should be preferred.
While the added value of multilater-alism in the Iranian case is recognised by almost everyone, multilateralism is not a key element for the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. Some time ago, the two parties abandoned the Road Map and, before this summer’s war, it seemed that Israeli unilateralism was the only way out, something which was fatalistically accepted by the Quartet. Today Israel has at least five options: (a) maintaining the status quo, with continued military action in Gaza and the West Bank; (b) the ‘Sharon plan plus’, which would include permanent withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank; (c) bilateral negotiations with the Palestinians; (d) renewed contacts in the Quartet or any other analogous multilateral framework; or (e) wait for the next crisis and the drafting of a new ‘1701-type’ resolution. Both political circumstances within Israel and American one-sided views of the conflict do not leave much room for multilateral initiatives. Nevertheless, the Europeans should insist that multilateralism is the only way forward for a durable peace.
Finally, putting ‘Iraq’ and ‘multilateralism’ in the same sentence is like trying to mix oil and water. Since May 2003 the US administration has led state-building in Iraq in an almost unilateral manner. However, despite the US’s endeavours, the situation there is extremely worrying. As Kofi Annan put it after his diplomatic visit to the region, ‘in a way, the US has found itself in a position where it cannot stay and it cannot leave’. Sooner or later, the Americans will have to realise that their efforts to stabilise and rebuild Iraq will not bear any significant fruit unless all political forces inside Iraq as well as all neighbours and the international community are directly involved in the search for a modus vivendi. In this respect, the idea of holding an international conference or conducting serious negotiations with a view to drafting a ground-breaking UNSC resolution should be encouraged.
In an interconnected and interdependent world, where any single im-portant issue, from Iraq to the greenhouse effect, from drug trafficking to terrorism, has global implications, is there still anyone who believes that problems can be solved unilaterally? Is there anyone who really thinks that isolationism is a credible option? Multilateralism is back and is here to stay. It remains to be seen, though, if the huge long-term human and financial costs of such a policy have yet dawned on us.