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Europe's fruitless search for peace

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BEIRUT - Poor Robin Cook. Abused as an anti-Semite by a Jewish demonstrator at the illegal Jewish settlement at Har Homa - in Arabic, Jebel abu Ghoneim - he claimed that the slur hurt. Apparently unaware that anyone who questions Israel's policies towards the Arabs will be slandered as a racist, he took it personally. At least President Chirac understood its real meaning when he endured a similar barrage during a visit to Israel in 1996. Any European leader who contradicts the Israeli government should expect the same treatment.

Europe's policy towards the Middle East is both eminently reasonable and invariably rejected. Long before the Americans accepted Yasser Arafat's transformation from "super-terrorist" to super-statesman, the Europeans were talking to the PLO. It is said Britain's ambassador to Tunis was helping Arafat to draft his speeches between 1988 and 1992. After all, it was the Venice declaration of 1980 which stated that the PLO should be "associated" with peace negotiations.

Four years later, European foreign ministers supported "the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination, with all that this implies." In 1987 EC declarations deplored Israel's "repressive measures ... which are in violation of international law and human rights." Long before the Oslo agreement Europe had been seeking a just peace in the Middle East. But once Oslo had been signed - worthless signatures, it now appears - Europe's impotence was made apparent.

The EU could finance the new Middle East peace, the US said, but could have no voice in it. They could pay - but would not be allowed to talk. And so, lulled by the self-indulgence of the Norwegians who brokered a treaty without international guarantees, we went along with this arrangement. And whenever a European minister suggested mildly that America was no longer an unbiased peace broker, that Washington was refusing to force the Israelis to comply with the peace, he or she was told to shut up.

For the problem is that Europe does not have the courage to formulate a common foreign policy - and thus has no common policy on the Middle East. In frustration, the Arabs now call on the Europeans to save them; and they forget that it was European powers who betrayed their demand for independence after the 1914-18 war. In their anger, the Israelis ask the Europeans what right they have to intervene; and they remember that the slaughter of 6 million Jews in the Nazi Holocaust was a uniquely European crime.

So what role can Europe have? Little at present, it seems. Ex-foreign secretary Malcolm Rifkind, presumably forgetting his own lamentable Middle East performance, has criticised Mr Cook for shaking hands with a Palestinian at Har Homa. For daring to shake hands with an occupant of the occupied lands Mr Cook has been turned down as a dinner guest in London by at least one Jewish group. Similar remarks were made by French Jews when France allowed Mr Arafat to address the European Parliament in Strasbourg a decade ago. The French government responded that their citizens must be mature if they wished to act on the world stage and host the EU parliament.

But maturity is not the hallmark of EU member-states. Their attempt to bring peace to Algeria has been pathetic. Their ability to calm tempers between Greece and Muslim Turkey has been equally abject. True, they see the explosion coming in the Middle East, and have good reason to be fearful. The Muslim and Jewish worlds will for ever be our territorial neighbours and they will never be neighbours of the US, however much power the latter has in the Middle East.

Maybe the EU should make its financial generosity contingent on political involvement in the region's future. But this would be a tough policy for a continent so weak it needs Washington to help sort out its squabbles in Ireland and Bosnia. So when it comes to Europe 50 years after Israel's creation, don't hold your breath.