Geneva, Switzerland—The webinar “A European Angle on Peace in the Middle East," organized by the Europe-Middle East branch of UPF, featured the perspectives of two diplomats.
This was an hour well spent. Those who tuned into the Middle East Peace Initiative webinar on February 16, 2023, were introduced to the Middle East with all its paradoxes: from the stark realities of war and governmental repression to rays of light as former enemies start talking, make treaties and even start working together.
Following a short introductory video, moderator Chantal Chételat Komagata, the coordinator of UPF for Europe, asked all present to join her in one minute of silence for those in Turkey and Syria who had lost their lives to the devastating earthquake of February 6. Mrs. Komagata briefly mentioned UPF's efforts to provide assistance to the survivors in both countries.
Robert Vandemeulebroucke served as Belgium's ambassador to Nigeria, Benin, Togo, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar.
He began his European perspective on the Middle East pointing to the disparate responses of the European Union nations to the successive waves of refugees reaching Europe's Mediterranean ports. All were shamed by German Chancellor Angela Merkel's acceptance of 1.5 million Syrians; and financial arrangements with Turkey to keep many more from traveling. Now, with the war in Ukraine, Europe is accepting still more refugees.
Moving to a panorama of the issues troubling the Middle East, the ambassador spoke of:
- Iran and its increasing tensions with the West following the murder of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who was accused of not wearing the hajib, and ensuing protests, arrests and executions, while the hardline government finds its support from Russia and China;
- Yemen and its stalled war, as countries on both sides try to get out of it, while the United Nations makes little progress with negotiation efforts;
- and Saudi Arabia, with its abundant energy and grandiose schemes designed to strengthen its political and economic position.
The more liberal and peaceful Gulf Cooperation Council countries prefer to sit on the fence, happy to court both sides in the current Russia-Ukraine war. On the Israel-Palestine conflict, he described Europe as ineffective and often divided, missing opportunities to influence policies on both sides. The picture he painted juxtaposed conflict-ridden and oil-rich countries, a region torn by rivalries between Russia, China and the United States, and one democracy, Israel, as evidenced by the ongoing peaceful demonstrations.
So what is the way forward? One good sign, the ambassador said, is the growing active participation of citizens, albeit mostly “under the radar.” Referring to education activist Malala Yousafzai in Pakistan; assassinated journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Saudi Arabia; the ongoing demonstrations in Iran; and Mohamed Bouazizi, the Tunisian vegetable seller whose self-immolation set off the Arab Spring, he commented: "Autocratic leaders still need to learn not to suppress violence by force."
In contrast, he pointed to Argentine Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim, with his traveling orchestra of young musicians from Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Jordan and Israel, as using music, a language everyone understands, as a powerful tool for peace. More such visionary characters are needed to turn the tide, the ambassador said; indeed, there are many across the region working for such a change.
Dr. Haim Koren has served as Israel's ambassador to Egypt and to South Sudan. In addition to his work with the foreign ministry, he has studied the region extensively: his doctoral thesis focused on Islam in Sudan.
As he sees it, there are many ways to look at the region, including borders and identities, history, and geography. After noting the emerging dynamic of globalization and technology in recent decades, he recognized the importance of Europe's role in encouraging and pushing forward peace processes. Considering the direct connection between Europe's immigration problems and the instability of several Middle Eastern countries, Europe's assistance for such people has been most valuable, he said. However, while acknowledging the sad phenomena highlighted by the Belgian ambassador, particularly the actions of non-democratic countries, he focused his comments on the many grounds for optimism that he sees. In fact, in light of these challenges and the impact of wider global developments, it is precisely through cooperation that such obstacles can be overcome.
Not surprisingly for a former ambassador, Dr. Koren chose as his main theme signs of increased cooperation between Israel and its neighbors. Following the wars of 1948, 1967 and 1973, Israel has had a peace treaty with Egypt for 40 years. As a former ambassador to Egypt, he has seen many projects, perhaps the most notable being the area of gas exploration. Recent developments have seen cooperation on gas in the Eastern Mediterranean between Egypt, Cyprus and Israel, with the potential to bring the gas to Europe. This is an example of real economic and strategic cooperation that helps us all, Ambassador Koren said, and the potential is there to deliver gas to Jordan too, and to Lebanon.
Against a backdrop of decades of Arab-Israeli conflict, with the Abraham Accords we now see cooperation with former enemies, such as Egypt, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Sudan and Morocco; but here is an area where international support—from Europe and the United States—will be important, he said.
Other areas of cooperation highlighted by the ambassador were aid—Israel sent one of the largest response teams to the areas affected by the recent Turkey-Syria earthquake—and medical care: "We provide medical care here for people from Iran, Pakistan and several African countries; we have just finished building a hospital in Chad; and just completed an emergency room in the hospital in Juba, started when I was ambassador to South Sudan."
He also mentioned help with agriculture and irrigation. In his view there is great potential for cooperation with more countries, which can only be a win-win for all those involved.
In the discussion that followed, both ambassadors were asked what role Europe can play in advancing peace in the Middle East.
Ambassador Koren emphasized that, despite the temptation to focus on grievances, it is good to look for common ground, and Europe's actions facilitate that.
Ambassador Vandemeulebroucke acknowledged that Israel stood out as a democracy in an unstable area, but confessed that for Europe, the first priority now must be to end the war in Ukraine.
Asked whether European insistence on its own values risks provoking enmity with the Middle East, Ambassador Koren said that each has to look carefully at the other. What Arab leaders are facing is different from Europe’s situation, he said. The political culture is different.
Of course, we all agree that killing a young lady for not wearing a headscarf is unconscionable, Ambassador Koren said, but if Egypt's leadership, for example, appears to be clashing with Western values such as human rights and democracy, Europe should see the reality it is facing. "Don't change your values, but humbly recognize that others may have different values," he said.
On Lebanon, which he had earlier described as "dire" and "on the brink," Ambassador Vandemeulebroucke pointed out that France is trying to help, and other countries may follow; and on Syria, who knows what changes will emerge following the catastrophic earthquake? He noted that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is looking for a way to resume talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, although probably not before elections are over in his own country.
As a final question, Mrs. Komagata asked each of the speakers to give an example of a breakthrough during his career as a diplomat.
Ambassador Koren spoke immediately of South Sudan: It was a great step to establish relations with the youngest country in the world and to witness progress despite the many challenges, he said. So much so that its neighbor Sudan asked this new nation's president to mediate between different factions in Sudan. "There's always hope for change," the ambassador said, concluding, "Always be optimistic!"
Ambassador Vandemeulebroucke said that, if he were 40 years younger, he would choose the foreign service again: "It's an exciting career!"
He told of being asked by the Emir of Qatar to open a Belgian Embassy there, and of finally managing to do it. But it was with his final account that he moved us all: He had been asked to find a 3-year-old girl who had been abducted by her father to Bahrain. After two and a half years of discussions with ministers of the Bahrain government, and after meeting their request to set up a cultural agreement with Brussels, he finally was able to see mother and daughter reunited. "That's the greatest achievement in all my career: It was people to people. After three years of investigation, I brought her back to her mother."
It was a privilege and a pleasure for UPF to host this discussion and hear from these two men of great experience.