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Mideast conflict - no longer an obstacle?

Latest update : 2008-07-14

The failure of the peace process prevented the Barcelona process to call a summit bringing together leaders from Israel and Arab countries. The Union for the Mediterranean, which is about to launch in Paris, successfully overcame the obstacle.

View our special report on the Union for the Mediterranean. 



For the first time since the Middle East conflict broke 60 years ago, the heads of state from Arab countries and Israel will sit around the same table. On July 13, Paris will host the founding summit of the Union pour la Méditerranée (Union for the Mediterranean, or UFM). The project has been one of French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s diplomatic priorities.


In a heretofore unseen picture, Syrian Bashar Al-Assad, Egyptian Hosni Mubarak, Palestinian Mahmoud Abbas, Moroccan King Mohamed VI, Algerian Abdelaziz Bouteflika, Tunisian Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Mauritanian Sidi Mohamed Ould Sheikh Abdallahi will take their places next to Israeli Ehud Olmert at the international conference. This gathering between leaders, who for so long turned their backs to each other, is not devoid of diplomatic scope.


The Paris rendez-vous has the allure of an “historic event,” notes Jean-François Daguzan, research head at the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique (FRS). More than a protocol moment, ‘the family portrait will have significant political meaning. It will sound the end of the ‘policy of the empty chair,’ long adopted by Arabs with regard to Israel,” he told FRANCE 24. The last time Arab and Israeli leaders sat side by side was at the dawn of the 1990s during the peace talks held in Madrid, Oslo and Washington.


Inaugurated in November 1995 during of the launch of the Middle East peace process, the Euro-Mediterranean project of Barcelona never managed to bring together Arabs and Israelis at a summit. Then president Jacques Chirac dreamed of such a meeting for the first French presidency of the EU (July-December 2000) but never succeeded. Spain had made a similar attempt on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Barcelona project. But with the exception of Israeli leaders and the president of the Palestinian Authority, none of the leaders from the southern shore of the Mediterranean showed up.


The breakdown of the Israeli-Arab peace process weighed heavily from early 1996 and at the start of the second intifada in 2000, causing the decay of the Middle East situation. Each party’s respective positions in the conflict crystallised, to the point of weakening the peace talks and wrecking all attempts to meet in Barcelona.


2008, a more favourable context


The inability of the Barcelona process to bring together Arab and Israeli leaders did not discourage the new French president from trying. “It’s in the perspective of the UFM that we must approach the issue of peace in the Middle East and look for an exit from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Sarkozy said in February 2007 in the city of Toulon, when he was still campaigning for the French presidency.


Israel, like the Palestinian Authority, like Lebanon, like Syria, will find a place alongside Eygpt, Jordan and all the countries of North Africa,” he repeated last month at the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, during his state visit to Israel.


Eighteen months after launching his idea for the UFM, in the middle of the presidential campaign, Nicolas Sarkozy is assured to get the memorial photo of his dreams: the nearly complete Euro-Mediterranean “family portrait.”


Unimaginable only a few years ago, it was made possible by the recent diplomatic progress in the Middle East. The discussions between Syrians and Israelis, held under the aegis of Turkey,and the conclusion of the Lebanese crisis both helped ease tensions and clear the way to al Assad’s visit to Paris


Will the UPM prove more effective than Barcelona at offering a framework for co-existence between Arab and Israeli leaders?  Some consider it a hypothetical question. "The path of the UPM will depend to some extent on the situation in the Middle East," European MP Béatrice Patrie told FRANCE 24. "It is well-known that the conflict is central to the project." A co-author of “The Mediterranean” with Emmanuel Español, the MEP is calling for greater involvement of the European Union in dealing with the conflict. "Clearly there is a need for Europe shared by several countries in the region. The EU is able to act to both bring together the positions of Arabs and Israelis and to overcome divisions.”



Date created : 2008-07-11