Brussels is a city of whispers. More accurately, those who work in its European quarter love to gossip about people regarded as important within their cosy bubble.
Catherine Ashton has been singled out for a relentless whispering campaign ever since she took up her post as EU foreign policy chief. For the first time, a Belgian government minister recently said publicly what many other diplomatic and political figures have been saying about Ashton behind her back: that she is forever spouting platitudes.
Ashton’s response to the “reconciliation” between the rival Palestinian parties Fatah and Hamas appeared platitudinous but was actually something more sinister. She claimed that the “EU has consistently called for peace and reconciliation, under the authority of President [Mahmoud] Abbas, leading to an end to the division between the West Bank and Gaza and in support of greater security and stability across the region.”
There are two problems with this statement. First, it is misleading. Far from urging unity, the EU has connived in Israel’s “divide and rule” strategy against the Palestinians.
Alastair Crooke, who advised Javier Solana (Ashton’s predecessor as foreign policy chief), has exposed how Britain orchestrated a dangerous shift in the EU stance on the Middle East when Tony Blair was prime minister. In an article published by the London Review of Books in March, Crooke recalls the glee of Jack Straw, then the UK’s foreign secretary, when he convinced Germany that Hamas should be placed on the Union’s list of terrorist groups in 2003. This led to a situation where the EU was showing preference for one Palestinian party (Fatah) over another (Hamas). The argument about Hamas being “terrorists” was bogus; Fatah, too, accepts the principle that Palestinians have the right to resist their occupation, including by arms.
The Palestine Papers, those internal documents made public by Al Jazeera earlier this year, show that Blair contemplated exporting some of the most pernicious aspects of Britain’s own imperial legacy to the occupied territories. In 2003, Britain and the US agreed on a secret “counter-insurgency” operation that would target members of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Internment without trial of Hamas members was even considered, despite how Britain’s use of that policy in the North of Ireland during the 1970s exacerbated the conflict there.
Many aspects of the “counter-insurgency” strategy were taken on board by the European Union collectively. In 2006, the EU launched an initiative called COPPS (Coordinating Office for Palestinian Police Support). Two of the police officers who have headed this initiative, Colin Smith and Paul Kernaghan, had formerly served with the Royal Ulster Constabulary, a force that was synonymous with harassment of the Catholic community in the North of Ireland. For most of its history, COPPS has mentored police loyal to Fatah in the West Bank and has declined to deal with Hamas representatives in Gaza. How does that advance the quest for “peace and reconciliation”, trumpeted by Ashton?
The second problem with Ashton’s aforementioned statement is her demand that “reconciliation” must be led by Mahmoud Abbas of Fatah. Contrary to what she implies, Abbas no longer has a democratic mandate. His term as elected president of the Palestinian Authority expired in January 2009. The legality of his term’s extension is questionable, to say the least.
More broadly, there is something condescending – racist, even – about how Israel and the West vets who should be the Palestinians’ political representatives. After Hamas won a parliamentary election in 2006, the EU – under pressure from the US – froze its aid to the Palestinian Authority and helped trigger the collapse of the resulting coalition between Fatah and Hamas. That was despite how the Union’s own supervisors of that poll, led by British MEP Edward McMillan Scott, confirmed that it was conducted in a free and fair manner.
Although Ashton’s statement did not refer to Salam Fayyad, the Palestinian “prime minister”, the West has also been eager to shore up his position. Fayyad was appointed premier by Abbas in 2007, without the decision being approved by the Palestinian Legislative Council (the closest thing that the Palestinians have to a parliament). The legitimacy of his appointment is, therefore, dubious.
Fayyad has made quite a few enemies among his fellow Palestinians, yet Western “experts” have ran a public relations campaign on his behalf. In his capacity as an international envoy for the Middle East, Blair regularly extols Fayyad’s virtues. Robert Danin, head of Blair’s Jerusalem office from 2008 to 2010, has gone further by portraying Fayyad as an intellectual trailblazer. Writing in the January-February issue of the journal Foreign Affairs, Danin told Fayyad’s critics that they should “stop resenting his successes”.
What are these successes? Near the top of Danin’s list was that Fayyad had kept public spending within his targets. This is in keeping with the neo-liberal doctrines inculcated in Fayyad when he previously worked for the World Bank and IMF.
Never mind how setting up a viable Palestinian state has become virtually impossible now that Israel has built a massive annexation wall in West Bank. Never mind how malnutrition among young Palestinians has reached “crisis point”, according to Save the Children. Never mind how Israel controls most of the water resources in the occupied territories. Never mind how elementary principles of democracy have been traduced. Of far greater importance to the EU’s representatives is that they can deal with Palestinian “leaders” cut from the same ideological cloth as themselves.
·First published by New Europe (www.neurope.eu), 15-21 May 2011