The Arab Spring and the New Middle East – A European Perspective

On Thursday evening, the 21st of July, 2011, the chairman of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and former President of the European Parliament, Dr. Hans-Gert Pöttering, lectured at the Konrad Adenauer Conference Center in Jerusalem about the Arab Spring. In his speech he emphasized the importance of the EU’s engagement in the peace process and mentioned the role he imagines Israel should play. Approximately 250 guests attended the event in colorful Mishkenot Sha’ananim opposite the walls of the Old City – which to the surprise of the majority of non-German-speaking attendees was held entirely in German (accompanied by simultaneous translation into Hebrew and English).

Dr. Pöttering praised the development Europe has undergone since the establishment of the European Union (EU): Today Europe enjoys democracy and peace. Since the Treaty of Lisbon (2009), the EU even operates an office of foreign affairs with the high representative Catherine Ashton as its foreign affairs spokesperson. The Arab Spring poses the first big challenge to this young office: The freedom movements in the Arab countries evoke concern about possible anarchy and chaos in the Europeans. There is particular unease about the future of the peace process in the Middle East: Will the revolutions be a threat to the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians? Pessimistic voices also fear more fundamentalist Iran-like regimes might be the outcome of the uprisings.

I agree that Europeans indeed live in one of the most democratic places on earth. Thus, I find it striking, that the people are somewhat surprised about the thirst for freedom in the Muslim countries. It is false syllogism that longing for fundamental human rights, such as freedom of speech and religion, is a culturally Western phenomenon. If desire for self-determination is not a capitalistic facet of a Western form of government, then why is Europe so hesitant about supporting the values it claims to stand for?

Dr. Pöttering says that Israel must utilize the new circumstances to establish freedom for the Palestinians by moving forward towards a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The status quo is no longer an option: An expiration date has already been stuck on the package. An Israeli initiative to advance the peace process and nurture the dialogue of cultures would be a major contribution to overcoming the tendency towards a clash of civilizations. But in order for this to happen, Israel must be assured the right of existence by its Arab neighbors. The EU should take a more active role besides the involvement of the Middle Eastern Quartet (USA, Russia, UN and EU) and promote a peaceful co-existence between two sovereign states. For this to happen it must recognize its responsibility and therefore not dread taking a clear position. Disunity such as in the case of Libya must not repeat itself.

As September rapidly approaches Dr., Pöttering acknowledges the Palestinian’ right to go before the UN if their ideas are constructive and can be used to further negotiations. Dr. Pöttering also condemns the settlements – as they violate international law. However, he does not take a clear stand on how to implement a two-state-solution and proceed with land-swaps, nor does he comment on the statements of US President Obama.

Dr. Pöttering sees the EU as a mediator in the Arab Spring. I believe that its main responsibility has not started yet: The young people are still dissatisfied; the people who win a revolution are not always the ones who started it. Now the EU has to show the Arab world that it is not only paying lip-service, but is interested in a peaceful and prosperous North Africa and Middle East. Israel can be a strong partner in this process, but the fundamental basis must be a dialogue which includes religious and cultural matters.