Amid the Pain, Assessing the Union for the Mediterranean: How Significant Was the Paris Summit?

By the time these lines are being written—let alone, read—the summit convened in Paris by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, on July 13, has already become yesterday’s news in Israel. A rush of new tidings, including, above all, the exchange with Hezbollah—the return of the bodies of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, and the release of a number of live Lebanese prisoners, particularly the child murderer Samir Quntar—is already crowding the headlines (pushing aside, for a moment of communal anguish, the various reports and investigations over Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s finances). In Israel, there will soon be funerals and soul-searching; across the border—and across a deep and frightening political and cultural divide—there will be celebrations and a sense of vindication. The achievements of the summit—and they are not negligible—hardly made a ripple amid these painful and dramatic events.

The one symbolic gesture that could have gained persistent attention for the Paris pageant—a handshake between the leaders of Israel and Syria—did not take place. (The friendly personal relations and interactions between Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, demonstrated again during the Paris talks, have become so commonplace that they have ceased to arouse amazement or even attention.) President Bashar Assad proved puerile in his efforts to avoid even eye contact with the Zionist foe, when truth and justice would have had it that his hand—stained with the blood of dozens of Lebanese politicians and innocent bystanders—should have been the one left hanging.

It is a fair guess that this greatly reduced the prospects of public support in Israel for any new deal on the future of the Golan. True, Assad used the Paris summit to take the historic step of recognizing Lebanese sovereignty and assenting to the exchange of ambassadors, for the first time since France severed the smaller sister from the mother country. But it remains to be seen, given Hezbollah’s power in Lebanese politics, how much this may mean in practice. The ghoulish celebrations that are to greet the release of Samir Quntar, who smashed the skull of a four-year-old with the butt of his gun, will only add to this sense of dominance by Iran’s proxies and Syrian allies.

And yet—we are entitled, indeed obliged, to sustain our optimism, even at times like these—it may well be that the Syrian angle, important as it is, will not be the aspect for which this week will be remembered some years hence, when the Paris summit is recalled (if this does come to pass) as a historic moment. Sarkozy may not have budged Assad or the other representative of old-style rejectionism, Muammar Qadhafi, by much; but he did bring together, around this new initiative—in line with his election campaign promises—all 43 nations that are now to share in the “Union for the Mediterranean.” These include all 27 members of the European Union (Mediterranean and non-Mediterranean alike, which may somewhat dilute the identity effect of the new project); the four non-EU Balkan states; Turkey, which originally was bitterly opposed to the Sarkozy initiative, suspecting it, at the time, of being a device to bar its entry into the EU; and all 11 southern Mediterranean states, including Israel (and due to its relationship with Israel, also Jordan, which has no Mediterranean coast).

This, in itself, is a remarkable achievement. So is the agreement on aspects of the common agenda, including water (to which Olmert dedicated much of his speech in Paris) and other environmental issues; improving trade relations and channels of communication; developing alternative energy sources, such as solar power (another field in which Israel can make a difference); and even the creation of a EuroMed University. Important questions—the location of the dual north-south secretariat; the financing of projects—remain to be resolved; so too is the future relationship of this structure with the thirteen-year-old “Euro-Mediterranean Partnership,” better known as the Barcelona Process. NATO, meanwhile, has its own “Med Dialogue” as well as the Mediterranean leg of the Istanbul Cooperative Initiative of 2004.

But there is one thing that the notion of a “Union” can provide that transcends these practicalities and offers a better future. It is at the level of identity politics that the Paris summit may leave its most profound mark. Where are we located? The “Middle East,” after all, is a colonial term, a steppingstone between the real world (Europe and North America) and the mysterious “Far East” of yore. The “Arab world” proved to be a chimera and, in any case, had no room for a Jewish state. The “World of Islam” is an even more foreboding geographical and political construct. But for us in Israel, and those in the countries around us who do not wish to be defined by the likes of Assad and Qadhafi, Hezbollah and Hamas, Bin Laden or Ahmadinejad, a Mediterranean identity and the amity it suggests may prove an alternative, creative frame of mind.

Copyright 2014/2015 AJC