Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero’s set of proposals to break the seemingly interminable impasse in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems doomed to failure – but not because there is anything in them that is wholly unreasonable. First, it would appear to be the wrong moment for any real progress to be made, with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s government relatively weak. The second flaw, however, is one of Madrid’s own making, namely the botched manner in which the peace plan was sprung upon a divided international community.
Zapatero surprised almost everyone when announcing his five-point plan during a summit meeting with French President Jacques Chirac in mid-November. According to his proposals, Israelis and Palestinians would agree to a ceasefire, followed by an exchange of prisoners – including the Israeli soldier captured in Gaza last summer, Gilad Shalit, and the Palestinian parliamentarians being held by Israel. Palestinians would create a national unity government, international peacekeepers would be deployed to oversee the ceasefire, and Spain would host an international peace conference in Madrid to define a way forward for the Middle East.
While the issue of international troops in Palestinian territory is something Israel has never suggested it would accept, the spirit behind the plan is simple: the “road map sponsored by Russia, the United States, the European Union and the United Nations is hopelessly stalled, and Zapatero’s plan is an effort to get the ball rolling once again. The problem is that while behind-the-scenes preparations are underway in earnest to stage a so-called Madrid II conference early next year, who is going to turn up and in what frame of mind is very much in the balance owing to the lack of diplomatic preparation before Zapatero took to the stage.
The proposals came with the backing of France and Italy–the latter now repositioning itself as a member of “Old Europe under the leadership of its Socialist prime minister, Romano Prodi. But neither Israelis nor Palestinians, or Washington, was consulted before the five-point plan was made public. This fact was a public relations gift to a defensive Olmert, who last week had a dig at Spain’s foreign minister, Miguel Angel Moratinos, saying that he obviously knew less about the region than he might like to think. It is difficult not to sense that Moratinos’ diplomacy has been undercut by his outspoken leader, with the former EU envoy to the Middle East spending the days following the announcement busy smoothing over ruffled feathers. “I knew at the beginning there would be a negative reaction, he said during those days. He was right. The Bush administration, hardly inclined to boosting the international prestige of Zapatero since his withdrawal of Spanish troops from Iraq (and his advice for other nations to follow suit), has been extremely cool over the proposals. The United Kingdom did not give the plan full backing, and Germany could be relied upon to dither.
It was all very well for an editorial in the pro-Zapatero El Pais newspaper to argue that the time had come for the EU “to take the initiative in the search for a solution to the conflict. However, this was not brought any closer by the Spanish leader’s announcement. Indeed, Washington’s response highlighted the fact that it hadn’t yet seen a new Middle East peace proposal from the EU.
The war in Iraq has divided Europe on foreign policy at a time when the EU is in a state of virtual paralysis following the rejection of its constitution. Zapatero’s three-way alliance on his Middle East plan runs the risk of falling into a void, allowing Israel to pay scant attention to his proposals. Spain has contingents of peacekeeping troops in action in both Afghanistan and Lebanon, but historically does not have the ability to pull important strings on the other side of the Mediterranean. It traditionally enjoys warm relations with sections of the Arab world and the Madrid conference of 1991 – co-sponsored by the US and the Soviet Union – was a success in opening the path toward the Oslo Accords. But without Israeli goodwill or pressure from Washington, the same impact seems unlikely this time round.
The fundamental divide between Madrid and Washington was laid bare in the preamble to Zapatero’s other major international policy initiative unveiled in November: the Alliance of Civilizations. Co-sponsored by Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and commissioned by outgoing UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, the document was a reply to the notion of a “clash of civilizations between the Christian West and the Islamic world. It offered a series of measures in the cultural, educational and media-related fields to foster greater East-West understanding.
The plan’s analysis, however, turned into a denunciation of the way the US has waged its “war on terror. Without naming names, it pointed to a “growing perception that universal principle of human rights and democratic governance are only vigorously defended in those cases where they are viewed by some states to be in their own interests. The document went on to argue that the impression of American double standards and the failure to link Iraq to terrorism had led to “a perception among Muslim societies of unjust aggression stemming from the West. Perhaps, but before Western powers sit down to thrash out a solution to the Middle East’s woes, they may need, first, to strike up a more effective dialogue among themselves over what they are playing at on the world stage.
James Badcock is freelance writer based in Spain who specializes in North African and Middle Eastern affairs. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR