Select Committee on European Union Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80 - 99)



  Q80  Chairman: Can I ask you to say one word about the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative?

  Professor Hassassian: The road map which was initiated in April 2003 has not been very successful because we have not seen any implementation of that. It was based also on the basis of incrementalism and confidence building measures. We have seen from the Oslo agreement that the confidence building measures did not work out for the simple reason that leaders on both sides were jockeying for a political accommodation rather than peace building. The lack of linkages of civil society and changing the perceptions of people on both sides led to its dismal failure. We do not want to repeat the same experience in the road map. The phased approach is not going to be very beneficial. Palestinians believe today that if they want really to start the peace process both sides have to start with the basic fact that there are five permanent status issues. Without realising that, I think we will go back to square one. The Arab Peace Initiative is a King Abdullah initiative which was endorsed in the Beirut Arab Summit in 2002. It is a good frame of reference for a comprehensive and just peace. The Arabs have offered Israel the right to exist and to be part of the existing nation states in the Middle East. It offered land in exchange for peace. It wanted Israel to relinquish the territories occupied in 1967 for a full and comprehensive peace. That frame of reference should be part and parcel of the Quartet's road map in future political processes between the two parties.

  Q81  Lord Hamilton of Epsom: If the Palestinians succeed in having a unified and coherent government, do you think that Israel has to have regime change before you can reach sensible conclusions and negotiations with them? Do you think that the Olmert government is too weak as it stands at the moment?

  Professor Hassassian: The national unity government will answer a lot of questions that the international community has been posing. Once and for all, the national unity government has stopped the in-fighting among the Palestinians. Now we should have a representative government of all walks of life. That in itself creates a certain type of security in our part of the world. There will be a consensus in this government that the negotiations will be conducted by the PLO and President Mahmoud Abbas will be handling the negotiations file with Israel. The question of recognition here is immaterial. However, a weak government on the Israeli side is not really going to push the peace process forward because Olmert is being attacked left and right. With such a weak government, we do not anticipate that there will be a process of engagement here. I think Israel will go for early elections. Of course, we cannot predict the outcomes of such elections but they are not going to be as we anticipate. However, we Palestinians believe that we have to be prepared for final status talks and to stop this incremental approach by accepting the fact that we have started and embarked on a peace process which was launched back in 1993. We have to continue within that framework because there is no military solution to this conflict. There is only one solution and that is political.

  Q82  Lord Anderson of Swansea: Are you suggesting that fundamental to the national unity government is the acceptance by the Cabinet of that government of a two state solution?

  Professor Hassassian: Yes.

  Q83  Lord Anderson of Swansea: May I put one further question relating to frustration at the lack of progress of incrementalism? There was a suggestion floated yesterday in an article in The Financial Times that in contrast to that approach there should have been an attempt at a regional approach, bringing in Iraq and other concessions around it. Is that something which attracts you?

  Professor Hassassian: Definitely. I believe that the crux of the problem in the Middle East is the Palestinian/Israeli conflict. All other regional conflicts are considered to be marginal when it comes to the hard core problem. We know that Israel is there to exist. The Arabs have endorsed their existence through the Arab Summit of 2002. We believe that a two state solution is the only solution, although the Palestinians have made their historic compromise in 1988 to accept only 22% of historic Palestine as our independent, viable state. Regional conflicts sometimes have marginalised the issue from the centre to the periphery. I believe that the developments in the Middle East today will be better if we have seen a certain kind of progress on the Palestinian/Israeli front. If you look at the issues, they are organically intertwined. What is happening in Iraq and the position of Iran, using the Palestinian card today and the Hezbollah card, is creating mounting pressure and instability in the region.

  Q84  Lord Anderson of Swansea: The article was suggesting that there should be a package which should include Iraq, Iran and other matters with the US and others agreeing as a total rather than starting incrementally following the Middle East Peace Process approach.

  Professor Hassassian: This comprehensive approach will be very complex and difficult. I believe that we have to look at the issues in perspective, solving the Palestinian/Israeli issue, at least getting the parties back on track to negotiations by not neglecting Iraq and Iran, because those are major actors in the Middle East and they could act as spoilers to the peace process. The Palestinians and the Israelis have been victimised by the spoilers to the peace process. I believe that today Iran plays a major role in being a spoiler and that is why the United States has to reckon with Iran but not at the expense of stalling the peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

  Chairman: You referred earlier to the economic importance of the EU. Lord Chidgey is going to ask the first of a series of questions about the political role of the EU.

  Q85  Lord Chidgey: In your opening remarks you made a very strong link between the level of EU donations to Palestine and the importance and stature of the EU's political role, which was very nice and we thank you very much. However, as you will know from the questions, we are concerned about the strength of the stand that the EU takes in the negotiations and in the final status issues. I would like to know what your view is on whether the EU has a coherent strategy on the Middle East Peace Process or is there any fresh thinking? I would like to caveat that and try to link the two questions together at the same time. In our other evidence sessions, there has been quite a lot of doubt spread to us on whether or not the EU does have a major political role to play, whether it is a junior partner to other, more powerful nations with greater interests. It has also been put to us that the EU does not speak with one voice. Who do you speak to if you want to speak to the EU? It is the old Kissinger argument. Also, there has been an argument that we should look at groups of EU nations as well as the EU as an entity that has its own particular—I would not say "agenda"—but perhaps view on the way forward and it works together as an informal team to try and press matters. If you could give me some answers to those various sub-issues within the main issue of whether the EU is just a banker or whether it really has a role which is important and which can be recognised, that would be fruitful.

  Professor Hassassian: The perceptions of the Palestinians concerning the EU political role have been considered to be very minimal. The major thrust that the EU had in supporting the socio-economic conditions and the infrastructural development of the future Palestinian state has always been a strategy for the EU. However, when it comes to the political role, or in putting pressure on Israel and being a potential partner with the US, we have not seen much teeth there. That is why we have all the time been urging our EU partners to become more proactive in the political arena, not to leave it to the United States alone. As you know, Israel has always wanted to shun the Europeans because for us the Europeans as partners are the only ones who could tilt the balance. There is more leniency and unequivocal support by the US to Israel. We do not have that kind of leverage by the Europeans and their political role to tilt that balance. Regardless of our appreciation of the contributions of the European Union in terms of humanitarian assistance, economic sustenance, development, investment, growth, fair trade and partnership which are very important for a future viable Palestinian economic entity, when it comes to the political peace process we have not seen much induced involvement by the Europeans. Every time we have meetings with Europeans on the bilateral levels, they have been asking us to put pressure on the US to accept the Europeans as potential partners in the peace process. We could not really convince the Americans to have the EU politically, involved to be on equal footing with the United States. That is why we have been very frustrated with the positions that we have not seen, for example. The EU is the largest donor to the Palestinian economy. Also, the EU is considered to be one of the largest trade partners to Israel. The Europeans can do a lot in putting pressure on Israel but that has been circumvented all the time by the pressures put by the United States on the European Union.

  Q86  Lord Chidgey: Thank you very much for those answers. They have been echoed in other quarters. The one thing we perhaps have not touched on is the process by which the EU can bind together in Palestinian eyes to be a more equal player in the Quartet. This is the issue that is most important to us in our inquiry: how the EU can function rather than picking individual states. We recognise that this is an issue and I wonder whether you can give your observations on the way forward for the EU to be a more effective player in the peace process.

  Professor Hassassian: Great Britain could play a very seminal role. The UK government is considered to be among the leading countries in the EU. In our meetings with his Excellency, the Prime Minister, we have asked him to be more proactive in the peace process and to have more teeth in the Quartet. The UN has been a lame duck in bringing the parties in the conflict together. The Russians are now starting to be more proactive in their involvement in the Middle East and in particular in recognising the national unity government of the Palestinians and trying to put pressure on the EU to accept this kind of government for future relations. We need to see the EU change its strategies. It is about time, with your geopolitical interest in the Middle East and our geographic proximity and our long, historic tradition that the EU should be more involved politically. We have been mandated by European countries all along. We have more affinity to working with you. There is a trusting relationship of Europeans with the Arab and the understanding of our religion, Islam, could play a cementing role, rather than a negative role. From that perspective, I think there should be more involvement. We cannot impose this on the Americans as much as the European Union which has to be more concerned because it has been investing lots of money in this peace process. Therefore, to cash in on the dividends of this peace process, the EU has to be more politically involved. The Palestinians and the Arabs will feel more secure in having an equitable solution with our partners, the Israelis.

  Q87  Lord Hannay of Chiswick: Do you accept that if the European Union were to play a more proactive role, which you are seeking, particularly in a set of negotiations which would be addressing the final status issues—a view which I would share very strongly—this will inevitably mean that the European Union in its more proactive role will have to put pressure on the Palestinians as well as on the Israelis. The idea that the Europeans are in there to back Palestinians while the US are in there to back the Israelis is, in my view, a futile approach to this. It is one that will lead absolutely nowhere. A more proactive European role will not just be a political concomitant of the already large part we play in supporting the Palestinian Authority. It will inevitably mean in some cases very strong representations to the Palestinian side, saying we believe that it would be helpful if you would do this, that and the other and not just representation to the Israelis. Is that fully understood?

  Professor Hassassian: Yes. Your statement is accurate and succinct. The Palestinians believe that the US has failed us dismally in being a third party because it did not portray itself as being an honest broker for peace. That is why we are insisting on the role of the Europeans, believing that at least there will be some kind of fairness and balance. As you put pressure on the Palestinians, we believe that you will also put pressure on the Israelis. This is what we call honest brokerage. We anticipate that the European role in brokering peace between the Palestinians and the Israelis would be much more credible than the one we have witnessed so far. The United States policy as a third party has been a total failure. Look what happened, from the Oslo agreement until now, with all the mediation and the full participation of the Americans. We had the impression all along that the US was dictating to the Palestinians the conditions for trying to relieve the Israelis of their commitments. That is not acceptable. We believe that the Europeans will play a more positive role in being equitable in putting pressure on both sides while searching for a common ground.

  Q88  Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: I think much of this question has been covered but let me put it in stark terms. Are you saying that you see the United States as absolutely Israel's backer and not as a power that is bringing the two sides together? That is what I am drawing from what you have been saying to us and I put it in stark terms deliberately.

  Professor Hassassian: Yes. With all the evidence that we have and with our experience with the Americans, we have not seen much pressure being put on the Israelis by the Americans. All the time we have been dictated to by the Americans to keep conceding.

  Q89  Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: You have told us how you think there needs to be an adjustment in this respect because you would like to see more EU involvement. I think the words you used a moment ago were "we insist on a greater role for the EU". What leverage do any of us have and how do we need to insist to the Americans that we have a greater role? The Americans have all the power with the Israelis. We would like to see a greater political role. You would like to see a greater political role. How do you think that is achievable?

  Professor Hassassian: This is not a question that I have to answer. You understand your potential. You understand to what extent the Middle East is so important and viable to the Europeans. You cannot just see the entire Middle East being highly politically volatile without doing anything. In the final analysis the economic dividends are really hurting the Europeans because of its markets and its bilateral relations with the Arab states. The imposition should come from the Europeans. We would like to assist by any means that we can. We have asked time and again for European involvement. We have promoted the EU on our platforms. It should play a more proactive role. The role that that the EU has been playing may not be on a par with that of the United States but it has been very minimal. We would like to upgrade that involvement. We have to look at certain mechanisms for how to do that, believing that the EU has always been subservient to the diktats of the US when it comes to its own policies and strategic interests in the Middle East. This is an EU concern, how to deal with the American hegemony in the Middle East and the total control of the pace of the peace process.

  Q90  Lord Lea of Crondall: How far has the Mecca agreement provided a basis for the EU engaging with Hamas? What have been the consequences of boycotting the Hamas-led government?

  Professor Hassassian: The boycott has affected the Palestinians tremendously. I as an ambassador have not been paid for the last 11 months. 162,000 workers in the public sector have not received their salaries and these workers support almost one million people. Almost one third of our total revenue service is based on the wage bill. That has a direct impact on the economic conditions. In certain cases in Gaza and the West Bank, the poverty level went beyond 80%. Today, unemployment rates in the West Bank and Gaza are almost 50%. This is the impact of the boycott, let alone the tax revenues withheld by Israel which totals almost 900 million. Already 100 million has been released as a good gesture by Prime Minister Olmert but that also has not been received yet by the Palestinians. Had we received all the promised aid, I do not think the conflict would have prolonged so far. I do not think Hamas would have sustained itself. Therefore, in mobilising people and being supported by the people, it was not Hamas's fault being democratically elected but it is the international community that from day one ostracised and alienated it. The Mecca agreement is first and foremost seen from our perspective, the Palestinians, as stopping the in-fighting and getting the disarrayed Palestinian house in order. This will continue to be our utmost priority. Forming a national unity government based on pluralism, inclusion and dialogue is of utmost importance in sustaining our readiness to reinvigorate the peace process with the other side. It is the other side, Israel, that is not giving us the chance to form such a government. Israel wanted the Palestinians to be embroiled in t his internecine warfare because that would bolster its position in maintaining the status quo and in saying, "We do not have a partner on the other side."

  Q91  Lord Lea of Crondall: Can I link that to the new role of Saudi Arabia as a facilitator and also the new role of the EU which is what the question is supposed to be about. You might like to say something about the former but on the latter—it goes back to our earlier discussion and Baroness Symons's question—how can the EU do something that it is not somehow doing at the moment? Would it be that the analogy is as follows: the United States can act both unilaterally and as part of the Quartet. The United States attitude to the EU is where is the problem? We are all part of the Quartet. The United States can act unilaterally or independently, whichever way you like, as well as part of the Quartet. Can the EU do something in this field? It is an ambiguous expression because one minute we are talking about the EU; the next minute we are talking about Tony Blair, President Chirac or somebody, but can you unwrap that enigma a little more?

  Professor Hassassian: The Mecca agreement provides an historical opportunity from my perspective for the EU to engage with Hamas in a national context, which is a national unity government. It might enable it also not to solely deal with Hamas, engaging and dealing with the national unity government will not only help the prospects of peace but will enable the EU also to engage with political Islam in a favourable and relatively moderate context. You are not dealing with a Hamas government; you are dealing with a national unity government in which Hamas will be represented. 15 ministers will not be Hamas ministers. Therefore, the majority is non-Hamas. This is an excuse for the European Union to deal with a government and not to be under the pressure of the Israelis or the United States not to deal with such a government. Such a government is going to bring Hamas even further towards the PLO agreements in accepting prior agreements with Israel. Now they have to respect prior agreements. We want them to honour them and to deal through them. That will take some time. My President is concerting a lot of effort in bringing Hamas on board. We have to give credit that Hamas has been moving forward, maybe not enough, but it is moving forward and I think this is a great opportunity now for the European Union to deal with a national unity government and not to deal with Hamas per se.

  Q92  Lord Anderson of Swansea: Some commentators argue that one of the key motives of the Saudi Government was their concern that Hamas was coming increasingly under the influence of the Iranians and that this should be seen in the context of Sunni concern generally about true governance. Can you comment on that?

  Professor Hassassian: We have to admit that the Saudis have very good relations with the United States. They have been a strategic ally next to Israel for the Americans. It is the only government that could really put some pressure on President Bush who might listen to the Saudis. The Saudis have been very generous also to the Palestinians in terms of aid. The Saudis are now worried with the nuclear development in Iran which they believe threatens their position in the Middle East. With the Sunni/Shi'ite uprising in Iraq, the Sunnis now are on the receiving end of the hegemonic attitude of the Shi'ites, which in turn is creating the unrest and instability in the Middle East starting with Hezbollah in southern Lebanon all the way to Iraq and Iran. It is important that the Saudis will play a major role now. That is why they hosted Hamas and President Mahmoud Abbas to clinch an agreement. That agreement is followed by monetary rewards, as you know. That is why we believe that the Saudis have high stakes in the Middle East and cannot afford Hamas playing in the hands of the Iranians. They are trying their utmost also not to let the Iranians play the Hezbollah card in southern Lebanon. We see this arc of moderation between the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, and President Mahmoud Abbas fitting very well with the interests of the United States in creating a stable Middle East by providing carrots rather than sticks. This has been a prelude for the Mecca agreement. If the Saudis are accepting Hamas and they are trying to protect Hamas from slipping into the hands of the Iranians in using them as a trump card in the Middle East, the Americans eventually I believe will be responsive. We have seen many governments within the European Union portraying positive indications towards the acceptance of this national unity government.

  Q93  Lord Hannay of Chiswick: What is holding up the formulation of a national unity government now? We are two weeks or more from the Mecca agreement and there has still not been a government formed. What are the policy issues which are delaying that? Should we expect, when a national unity government is actually announced and takes office, any further statement elaborating on or adding to the Mecca agreement; or is the Mecca agreement the final word?

  Professor Hassassian: Since day one when the Mecca agreement was first signed by both parties, Fatah and Hamas, the deliberations on trying to choose ministers have started already. In our basic law the president gives three weeks after the letter of designation given to the Prime Minister for the formation of a government. However, there will be an extension of two weeks as an extra period. The deliberations between all parties have been going on in forming this unity government. There is a problem with the appointment of the Interior Minister. Both sides would like to have an independent minister who will control the Ministry of the Interior. The executive force was created by Hamas when it assumed control of the streets. In order to contain that within the security apparatus, it has to be part and parcel of the overall security set up which, in the final analysis, the president is in total control of. There is a major problem there in the appointment of an independent who will be head of the Ministry of the Interior. They are still looking to solve that. There are other minor problems, the question of the recognition of Israel and the political platform for such a government. The political agenda of such a government would play a very important role, whether to be accepted by the international community or not. Everybody is waiting not for the formation of the national unity government, but what would be its political platform? The assessment whether to recognise this unity government or not will be another chapter that we have yet to read closely.

  Lord Hamilton of Epsom: We have touched on Iran already. We want to know what role Iran can have in the peace process. Does the U-turn by President Bush, allowing the Iraqi Government to talk to Iran and Syria under the Baker Hamilton recommendations, have any impact, do you think, when it comes to the Palestinian/Israeli conflict? Do you see it spilling over? Is there any role for the EU to play in terms of influence on Iran?

  Q94  Lord Hannay of Chiswick: Do you think that the enhanced or proactive EU role in the Middle East Peace Process should include pressing the United States to have a dialogue with Iran that covers all matters at issue between the United States and Iran which would obviously encompass the Middle East Peace Process as well as the nuclear issue, encouragement of terrorism and other matters? Do you think that that is likely to be a role which the Europeans should be playing or should they be taking a rather neutral role in this matter?

  Professor Hassassian: I think the EU should play a more proactive role in trying to influence the United States to be engaged in a dialogue with Iran. We know today that Iran is a major power regionally in the Middle East and it controls to a certain degree now three files: the Iraqi file, the Hezbollah file in southern Lebanon and the Hamas file. These are the three most important hotbed issues in the Middle East. If the Iranians were left to be spoilers, to use these three areas, it would be a top priority for the United States to deal with Iran whether they like it or not. The question of the nuclear file is something the Arabs do not like to see because it is considered to be another threat for the Arabs especially in the Gulf area. This should not exonerate Israel from the responsibility of dismantling its nuclear weapons. If we want to free the Middle East from weapons of mass destruction, you cannot pursue it with double standards. This is what the United States is doing. They are not allowing Iran to develop its nuclear capability and yet they have been supporting Israel in having their nuclear reactors in Damona. The Europeans should play a more proactive role in this area too. The US should listen to the Europeans as a potential partner in the Middle East to engage in a dialogue with the Iranians. In the final analysis, if the Iranians are kept as spoilers to the peace process, we are going to witness major wars in the Middle East. This regional instability is not in the interests of the United States nor of the Europeans.

  Q95  Lord Hamilton of Epsom: Where do you see the Iraqi talks going in Syria and Iran? Obviously the Americans are behind those. They may not be at the table but I suspect they will even be that. That process is starting, is it not?

  Professor Hassassian: There has recently been a rapprochement between Syria and Iraq and there is a good relation between the Syrians and the Iranians. The three of them could really play a major role in creating stability in the Middle East. The impact of the Syrians on the Iraqis and the formation of such a government still needs credibility and accountability. It is not yet credible and accountable by the people of Iraq. They think these are puppet regimes being imposed on them by the Americans. The major issue in Iraq is the withdrawal of the US troops. Once there is a withdrawal, I think the Iraqis can manage their internal affairs. Given the fact that Iraq today is vulnerable to all kinds of conflicts that are being swept into it, whether the Iranian interest, the Syrian interest, in using Iraq, by using the Iraqi question they think they are trying to put pressure on the Americans in order to gain more concessions on their part. It is enough to give sticks. It is about time that the US should give carrots. Syria could be pacified if the Hariri file is closed. I think the Syrians could impact and deliver Hamas. The Syrians started by hosting Mashaal and President Abbas. The Syrians also would play a limited role in Iraq in the stabilisation process. Syria also would try to alienate itself or withdraw from this closer alliance with Iran if the Saudis are willing to compensate Syria financially. If there is a political will on the side of the US to re-engage the Syrians in a peace process, with the Israelis over the Golan Heights, this is the time when they have to cash in on the dividends of that process. If they do not do that, what we will see is an exacerbation of violence which would be detrimental to the interests of all powers.

  Q96  Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: This is really examining that point about Syria and the other Arab neighbours. You said something very interesting a while ago. You said Egypt, Jordan and Saudi were the arc of moderation, a very interesting phrase to use. You also talked about the relationship between Iraq, Iran and Syria being the catalyst to forming a more peaceful alliance in the future. In all of that do you see Syria moving away from its relationship with Iran towards a more traditional role in its relationship with the rest of the Arab league?

  Professor Hassassian: The Syrians have been pushed to take such a position because of the insistence of the United States in alienating Syria and putting pressure on President Bashar's government and in minimising its role regionally, especially the role that Syria has played in Lebanon. After the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon, still we can witness the continuation of the political repercussions of the Syrian presence in Lebanon. As you can see today, the opposition to Syria is mounting more and more in Lebanon and I think the Americans are playing on that contradiction and that should stop immediately.

  Q97  Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: It is not just the US pressure though, is it? The French put pressure on Syria. You talked about the Harare file being closed but earlier on another phrase you used was that the UN is a lame duck. Of course it is the UN that is insisting on the Harare file staying open. What I am interested in is the Arab league, the Gulf Cooperation Council, the OIC. Do you see a role for them? What is the relationship you would like to see between those bodies, which are Arab or Islamic bodies, and the European Union?

  Professor Hassassian: When I referred to the UN as a lame duck, I did it in the context of not implementing its resolutions on the ground when it comes to the Palestinian/Israeli issues.

  Q98  Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: Not in the context of the peace process?

  Professor Hassassian: No. The French position has been personalised. It is Chirac's position concerning the Hariri file. I have been through many discussions with French officials. They are not as persistent and adamant as President Chirac himself, who is personalising this issue. I believe that the cooperation between the Gulf Council, the Arab League and the European Union has always been a vacillating procedure. Sometimes it is a more strenuous relationship, at other times we see it more easing but it is like an ebb and flow kind of a relationship. It has never been hostile to the Europeans. Every time that we have to deliberate on EU policies in the Middle East it has always been very positive. I still believe Syria can play a positive role in the Middle East. It should be used by the great powers, and the Europeans should push the Syrians to be more proactive in stabilising the region and in engaging in direct peace talks with Israel. It cannot really continue while the US and other countries are putting pressure on the Syrians to push Syria further into being in alliance with Iran, something that Syria is not forced to do but it has been cornered to do so because of the current circumstances. Let us not forget that today Iran is helping Syria financially, and it has been compensating for what previous Arab governments used to give Syria in terms of economic aid and growth.

  Q99  Lord Anderson of Swansea: We have received evidence that last year, 2006, EU aid to the Palestinians amounted to over 680 million euros, the largest ever contribution in a single year, roughly half from Member States and half from the European Commission. The aim is obviously to maximise the benefit of that sum to the Palestinian people. To what extent do you, representing the people of Palestine, feel that that money is well spent? Can you see ways in which it could be better spent? Are you happy with the degree of consultation by the EU and other countries with the representatives of the Palestinians?

  Professor Hassassian: The EU's major instrument in supporting the Middle East Peace Process has been funding the Palestinian National Authority. I said earlier that by far the EU has been the largest donor to the Palestinians. You have mentioned the figure. I have all the figures in front of me. I believe that to a certain degree we have failed in our fiscal policies however, we have learned our lesson.

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