Now, The Palestine Question

In 1919 Britain's foreign secretary, Arthur Balfour, drafted a candid memo on Europe's diplomatic record concerning Palestine. European powers, he wrote, "have made no statement of fact that is not admittedly wrong... and no declaration of policy which they have not always intended to violate."

Nine decades on, the list of broken Western promises has grown longer. But Tony Blair means to leave all that behind. The British prime minister has long argued that an Israeli-Palestinian peace is central to solving post-9-11 security worries. He angered Arabs, his own Labour Party and continental Europeans by supporting the war in Iraq. Going forward, he knows that pushing the Americans toward an Israeli-Palestinian solution could be a giant step in mending ties with all three of those camps. Hence his promise that seeking a Middle East peace will become a "central priority" once the shooting stops in Iraq.

The question is whether George W. Bush will be with him. At Camp David last month, the U.S. president claimed so. "Soon," he said, Washington and London will release their "road map" for peace, drawn up by the so-called Quartet--the United States, the European Union, the United Nations and Russia. In Brussels last week, after every single European foreign minister mentioned how important it was that the United States backed the road map, Colin Powell declared it would be published, without amendments, when the government of the new Palestinian Prime Minister Abu Mazen is confirmed.

Nobody's holding their breath, however. Palestinians point out that the much-anticipated plan has already been delayed six times. By some accounts, the Israelis have already asked for 100 amendments. Skeptics say that Washington might well lack the political will to go beyond symbolic gestures. The Bush administration is busy with Iraq, and may think it safer to park the peace process until after the 2004 elections. "We are as committed to Palestinian peace as to Iraqi peace," says a senior State Department official. But appointing a new prime minister won't by itself ensure progress, he adds. "Security needs to be established. You have to end the violence."

Such caveats may be too open-ended for Blair. He is determined to push the pace on the Middle East, and U.S. recalcitrance would be one of the few things that could unsettle his cozy relationship with Washington. Blair has pressed Bush at each of their recent meetings not only to release the road map as soon as possible but to cast it as part of a broader effort to engage their bruised European allies, chiefly France and Germany. According to Downing Street aides, the two leaders will discuss the issue once again at their summit in Northern Ireland this week.

There's no understating the chasm between U.S. and European views on the Middle East. Washington's unbending support for Israel contrasts with strong European sympathy for the Palestinians. A recent Chicago Council on Foreign Relations poll found that only 40 percent of Americans wanted an independent Palestinian state, compared with 72 percent of Europeans. "The gap separating Europeans from Americans on the question of Israel and the Palestinians is the biggest impediment to transatlantic understanding today," writes New York University historian Tony Judt. While the Bush administration's regional priorities are individuals such as Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, Europeans view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as the root of regional unrest and global terror. For Europe, whose own involvement in Middle Eastern wars dates back to the 11th-century crusade, the Israeli-Palestinian issue is, as France's Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin put it recently, "the mother of all crises."

Europeans and Americans have been wrangling over the road map since autumn. Then, the United States wanted to defer publication until Israel's January Knesset elections; Europeans wanted it released immediately. Last month Blair himself changed his stand twice. On March 25 he said the plan would be published when the new Palestinian prime minister named his cabinet. Two days later it was to be when Abu Mazen's confirmation was "properly administered," whenever that might be. "Every time Blair's asked about it, he has to ad lib about when it's going to happen, and excuse why Bush isn't doing anything about it," notes British political commentator Jonathan Freedland.

But there are signs that such toing and froing may be coming to an end. Last week Blair declared a measure of independence from America, distancing himself from Donald Rumsfeld's bellicose warnings to Syria and Iran. Britain, he said pointedly, had "absolutely no plans" for making war on either country. And Foreign Secretary Jack Straw recently enraged the Israelis by admitting that the West was guilty of double standards in the Middle East by upholding U.N. resolutions on Iraq, but not on Israel. For the first time in months, Britain's leaders are beginning to sound like Europeans. If Washington fails to push the forthcoming peace plan, or delays it, the stage would be set for yet another rough diplomatic round between the Old World and the New. This time, the British probably would not side with America.

For Europeans, history gives the issue a special emotive force--guilt over colonialism coupled with memories of the Holocaust. Europe helped birth the Jewish homeland after World War II, but popular support cooled after the 1967 war, which quashed the image of Israel as a David battling Arab Goliaths. Today, says Ilan Greilsammer, a French political scientist teaching in Tel Aviv, "Israel is identified in Europe as a colonial country which occupies and kills Palestinians."

The Israelis don't believe the Europeans take their security issues seriously. "[The Europeans] are using the same rhetoric to take us back to Oslo, instead of taking us forward," says Natan Sharansky, a new Israeli minister, and among the most influential voices in Washington on Palestinian reform. The current divides over Iraq between America on one hand and the EU and United Nations on the other could make the Quartet unworkable, he adds.

EU governments are also increasingly sensitive to the political sentiments of their 15 million Muslims. More and more these days, Europe conceives of the Middle East as a neighbor. Indeed, it has become Europe's biggest priority for economic and political development, after the Balkans. The EU is the single largest donor to the Palestinian Authority. It aims to extend its free-trade area to the region by 2010. In a call to strengthen Europe's Mediterranean links last fall, European Commission President Romano Prodi rhapsodized about the sea forming "a girdle of peace and cooperation... stretching from Spain to the Black Sea and Persian Gulf."

Americans share few of these ambitions. For the Bush administration, particularly, standing by Israel is almost an article of faith. It remains to be seen whether, after Iraq, the United States will temper that stance in order to rebuild its relationship with Europe, or whether the two sides will remain at odds. As with Iraq, Tony Blair will once again be the man in the middle. Only this time, he may act more like a European, and less an Anglo-American.

With Richard Wolffe in Washington, Emily Flynn in London, Tracy McNicoll in Paris, and Stefan Theil in Berlin

Join the Discussion