Adrian Hamilton: Stop trying to control the Middle East

The plates are shifting and no one in the major capitals of the world knows how to respond
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The Independent Online

There are times when it is best to admit that you have lost your way and it would be wisest to pause and consider your bearings. Such a moment has arrived in Western policy in the Middle East. It is not that it is just wrong - although that could be argued. It is that we have no idea where we're heading.

Take the coming to power of Hamas in Palestine. Israel has decided to withhold funds. The UN objects. The US is silent and Europe doesn't seem to know what it believes is the best course. Or Iraq. The security situation goes from bad to worse, Jack Straw, along with the US ambassador, lecture the Iraqi politicians about the need for inclusivity and then watch amazed as a sacred Shia site gets blown up. Are we in it for the long haul? Is America preparing to start withdrawing come what may? Is there a plan for what happens if the country collapses into civil war? Nobody knows. Certainly not London and probably not Washington either.

Nor is there any clearer policy on Iran. The US threatens dire action and calls for regime change. The Europeans tag along with half-hearted threats. Russia plays both ways. But is Washington really prepared to force regime change, bomb facilities or encourage Israel to do the same? And would we go along with President Bush if he did so?

It's more than indecision. It's total bafflement. The plates of the Middle East are shifting and no one in the major capitals of the world has a grasp of what is going on or how to respond to it. It's as if we've lost control of the agenda but can't stop meddling for fear of becoming irrelevant.

But perhaps it is time we did face this prospect. The best thing that could happen to the Middle East now is if its members decided at last to take back control of their own lives.

Let Israel and Europe withdraw their funding of Palestine. It would do the Palestinians and the region a world of good if those funds were replaced from the oil-rich coffers of the Arab world and Iran. Press the Iraqi government to put their own date on the withdrawal of foreign troops. Allow Iran to develop the nuclear reprocessing technology it wants, on condition it is kept for peaceful purposes.

This is not a council of despair nor a cry for havoc. There is no reason why perfectly sensible, and peaceable, policies could not result from a withdrawal of the West from trying to control events in the Middle East.

Hamas leaders are at the moment touring the Middle East capitals to discuss where next. Hamas wants money, the members of the Arab League are suggesting that they sign up to the Saudi peace plan. In return for a withdrawal to pre-1967 borders, the Arab world would agree to recognise Israel and provide security guarantees.

Without reneging on the manifesto on which it fought the Palestinian parliamentary elections, Hamas could, by joining in this offer, hold out the prospect of recognition on the basis of an agreement that would conform to UN resolutions and thwart any Israeli ambition to use the security barrier as the basis of future borders. Much of the Israeli public might well accept it.

No more does setting a date for withdrawal from Iraq - or rather encouraging the Iraqis to set a date - necessarily open the gates to civil war. The date could well concentrate political minds in a way that cannot happen so long as America and Britain remain in the wings. Nor does their presence as such prevent war. If the Iraqis cannot hold together, all the huffing and puffing of the British Foreign Secretary is not going to help

As for Iran, we are surely better trying to cope with the treaty obligations it has signed up to than accusing them of lying and trying to impose policy from without. Iran has agreed to the subsidiary protocol of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty which allows it to carry out uranium enrichment but on condition of stringent inspection by the UN agency. Keep it to that and the international community can retain some purchase.

Admittedly, the likelihood of the West keeping its sticky fingers out of the Middle East after a century of constant intervention may seem pretty remote. Going on past history, there's not much likelihood of the Middle East countries themselves pulling together behind Palestine or Iraq, let alone Iran. Washington will use its influence over Egypt to stymie the Saudi peace plan, just as it did when the plan was first launched six years ago. Tony Blair has sold the pass of any common European policy where it might divide from Washington. Even if he hadn't, President Chirac has become so unpredictable and nationalistic in his political death throes that any consensual European approach to the Middle East is impossible.

Where Iran is concerned, the US is driven by its own inner demons that make it impossible for it to develop a constructive policy of engagement. It cannot approach Hamas because of its over-arching policy of a War on Terror. It is unable to deal honestly with Iraq because that would involve admitting mistakes, which President Bush and his Vice President will never do. And so the UK will limp along, unable to influence Washington but unwilling to break free of it.

Yet, what is the alternative other than starting anew? To go on as now, thrashing about without aim or purpose? Let's just admit we don't know what to do and maybe, just maybe, the peoples of the Middle East will manage rather better without us.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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