27 JUNE 2005 NATO PARLIAMENTARIANS DISCUSS MIDDLE EAST PEACE PROCESS AND ROLE OF NATO IN THE BROADER MIDDLE EAST
Members of parliament from NATO and Mediterranean partner countries met in Naples on 24-25 June to discuss security in the region in the 2nd yearly seminar co-organised by the NATO PA and the Italian parliament. Some 30 legislators from Europe and Canada met their colleagues from Algeria, Cyprus, Israel, Jordan, Mauritania and the Palestinian Legislative Council, as well as NATO officials and a number of experts and academics.
Two themes dominated the Naples seminar: developments in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process ahead of the Gaza disengagement and the Palestinian legislative elections; and the role of NATO in the broader Middle East.
To the question: how promising are current developments? the answers were ambiguous. Israeli speakers, from both parliament and academia, described the unilateral disengagement from Gaza, scheduled for mid-August, as a major breakthrough. However, despite the fact that a majority of Israelis are currently in favour of a two-state solution, they were doubtful as to whether the Sharon government would, after the disengagement, take further initiatives in the context of the Road Map and towards final status negotiations. This appeared increasingly difficult and risky, in their view, as the Palestinian government still had not proved entirely reliable when it came to controlling terrorism, as a recent resurgence of violence seemed to indicate. Also, Israeli participants reminded once again that they could not accept granting the right of return to all Palestinian refugees, because it would dramatically change the demographics of the Jewish state.
Palestinian discussants stressed that while Israel was withdrawing some 8,000 settlers from Gaza, it continued its policy of steady settlement expansion and "land grab" in the West Bank, despite agreeing on a total freeze with the US President. When questioned by NATO PA members, Israeli participants could not offer a convincing explanation to the systematic expansion of settlements. Moreover, even after the disengagement, Israel would retain full control of access to and security of the isolated and overpopulated Gaza strip, making it "the largest prison on earth". The Israeli "security" wall, according to the Palestinian speakers, demonstrated the real objectives of the Israeli government, as it was built to incorporate large areas of Palestinian land in the West Bank rather than on the internationally recognised Green Line. On the question of refugees, a Palestinian speaker reminded that, as the right of return was recognised by international law (UN General Assembly resolution 194 and UN Security Council resolution 242), it could not be totally dismissed but should rather be the object of negotiations between the two sides with the mediation of the international community.
Some participants expressed concern at the recent postponement of the Palestinian legislative elections, suggesting that the ruling Fatah leadership was trying to buy time because it was afraid of a strong Hamas showing, following the Islamist movement's good performance in local elections in May. Palestinian legislators dismissed such an interpretation, indicating that they were in favour of greater involvement of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority because it could encourage them to evolve towards more responsible political positions.
The role of the international community in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process was also discussed at length. Many participants, feeling the fragility of the situation and the increasing risk of falling back into violence, advocated a renewed, strong involvement of the United States and the European Union in the negotiations. All Palestinian speakers expressed support for any decisive involvement of the international community, while Israeli discussants were more sceptical. One even said that the international community was "an abstraction" and that no solution externally imposed was going to work. NATO PA members rejected such an interpretation and insisted that the role of the Quartet (UN, US, EU, and Russia) was recognised by both the Israeli and Palestinian governments and could indeed facilitate the implementation of the Road Map. The leadership of the United States, in this regard, was seen by most participants as absolutely crucial.
The role of the Alliance in the Mediterranean region and in the broader Middle East was discussed with NATO officials and academics. Established 10 years ago as a confidence building exercise aimed at contributing to the efforts by various international actors to enhance regional security, the NATO Mediterranean Dialogue has been recently "elevated to a genuine partnership". According to NATO officials, the dialogue has contributed to dispelling misperceptions on both sides and established an articulated programme of practical cooperation in security-related areas. Three principles have guided the dialogue so far and will continue to do so: (1) complementarity: the NATO effort must be seen as complementary to other initiatives, such as the EU Barcelona Process; (2) practical cooperation: offering support to partner countries in areas such as defence reform, military training and education, civil emergency planning; (3) joint ownership: the dialogue "is not about imposing ideas on other countries" and partners are always free to choose the level of cooperation and the activities they wish to have with the Alliance. The same principles will also guide the newly established Istanbul Cooperation Initiative (ICI) offered to the countries of the Gulf Cooperation Council.
Participants from Mediterranean partners were generally positive about the role of the Alliance in the Mediterranean. One dissenting voice, however, delivered a harsh critical assessment of the NATO Mediterranean Dialogue. The Alliance, the speaker said, was still perceived in a rather negative way throughout the region because of the legacy of the Cold War. Public opinion was not aware of NATO's transformations in the last 15 years and did not see the logic of maintaining such an Alliance after the fall of the Soviet Union. Apart from the elites, which are directly involved in the Dialogue, NATO was seen as dominated by the United States, and anti-Americanism was a widespread sentiment in most Muslim societies, especially after the Iraq war. Moreover, people in the region were confused by the concepts of "greater" or "broader" Middle East and assimilated the NATO Dialogue with US efforts to bring democracy to the region. Other organisations, such as the UN, the EU or the G-8, were perceived as more acceptable by Muslim societies, especially because they included an economic and social component. This presentation prompted criticisms from other discussants, but there was nonetheless agreement that a renewed communication and information effort by NATO to reach out to other actors than the political and military elites was necessary. An effort that the work of the NATO PA could certainly complement in the context of its Mediterranean activities, in particular by involving legislators as well as representatives of the civil society.