If an extraterrestrial had observed the Middle East from his distant planet over the last two to three years, he would probably have come to the conclusion that the most influential external power in the Middle East is the European Union. The number of heads of governments, foreign ministers, special emissaries and technical assistants from the European Union who have roamed the Middle East, and Israel and the Palestinian territories, in particular, has been overwhelming and extremely impressive. So also was the flow of European material assistance to the Palestinian territories. But not only visits, diplomatic contacts and technical assistance characterize the EU's activities in the Middle East. A very active elaboration of peace plans that carry names of European capitals, politicians and diplomats, have floated over the Middle East. From the nomination of the special EU envoy to the Middle East peace process, Ambassador Miguel Moratinos, all the way through to the constitution of the Quartet and the essentially European initiation and elaboration of the Road Map, European activity seems to be incessant.
But does all this feverish activity yield some results? Does it at least serve as a source of hope? One doesn't have to be a blind admirer of the Israeli government to come to the conclusion that the European Union, like any other country in this world except the United States, does not carry any weight in the Middle East. The European activity can be described by the French saying un coup d'epee dans l'eau (a sword strike in the water).
As long as the European Union does not formulate a common foreign and defense policy it will remain a giant on the doorsteps of the Middle East. It will be considered, at best, with politeness, nothing more.
Does this mean the European Union is condemned forever to a lack of influence in the Middle East?
For now, the influence of the European Union can be exercised - if at all - only via its presumed pressure on the United States. Siding with the United States in its Mideast peace efforts, if one believes such efforts exist, is today the only contribution the European Union can make. This is certainly the way Israelis and Americans view the EU role, even if they do not express this opinion openly and officially.
This vision is, however, very shortsighted.

Local Populations: The Driving Force for Peace in the Middle East
For the very immediate future the Americans are the only ones who hold a position of influence in the Middle East. It remains, however, unclear for what purpose they hold this position of power. What should be clear is that whether they really want to make use of their influence in order to pressure the belligerents toward a peace process or not, a peace process will eventually take place. The driving force behind every peace process in the Middle East has always been the local population, not the outside world, not even the local governments, but the inhabitants of the region, who in their exasperation pushed their own governments toward negotiations and concessions. Today, we are once again witnessing the first signs of such exasperation. This is a result of the experiences of the last four years. In the near future we will certainly witness the growth of public opinion on both sides forcing the authorities to undertake a peace process.

Key Role of the EU After the Treaty is Signed
Throughout history, in war or even only in a state of war, peace seemed and still seems to most people to be out of reach. Yet no war lasts forever. And ours has already surpassed almost all norms and conventions. The question is not if we will have a peace agreement. We will have one. The question is what will happen once we have signed a peace agreement. Peace treaties have been signed throughout history. In most cases they have not prevented a renewed outbreak of wars after a certain period of provisional calm. How does one transform a peace treaty into a reality of stable and permanent peace? This will soon be the major question and challenge for the Middle East. The key to solving this riddle will lie in the hands of the European Union.
It is human nature to accept as a given a reality in which one has settled down, instead of thinking about possible future changes. In the Middle East, people are familiar with the permanent reality of the state of war. It is hard for them to imagine another future, particularly after the many hopes that have already been dashed. Indeed, people generally have difficulties imagining the future. Thinking about it causes anguish, a certain fear of the unknown. Instead, people are much more comfortable with the past and the present, which are familiar to them and to which they can accommodate themselves. This principle of human nature fits particularly well into the Middle East, hence the gloomy perspective people have about the chances of a peace process. It also suits their outlook about the European Union. If Israelis think about Europe today, they think of a continent that belongs to the past or they envision it in connection with its supposed hostile attitude concerning today's Middle East conflict. Very few Israelis will attempt to elaborate on the question of the future meaning of the relations between Europe and the Middle East.

Integration into a Greater Middle East?
Yet the Middle East, and Israel in particular, is and will be connected with Europe. After all, the State of Israel is situated at the geographic threshold of the European Union, which cannot be ignored. Just recently the EU's extension reached Cyprus and now only 250 kilometers separate Israel's coastline from the European Union. We certainly are of interest to our new giant neighbor. For the European Union, the unstable situation in the Middle East, just as in the Mediterranean and the Arab world in general, constitutes an ongoing problem. The political earthquakes of the Middle East shake Europe, and not only due to the waves of illegal immigrants caused by our turbulences.
For Israel, on the other hand, the European Union is by far its greatest trading partner worldwide. And much more important: The question of what direction the Jewish state will aspire to after the termination of the state of war is crucial. Will it be possible for the country to fully integrate into its immediate Arab surrounding once it has achieved a lasting peace with all its neighbors? This appears impossible. The Jewish state will, of course, cooperate with its neighbors as deeply and diversely as its neighbors allow. Yet it will never be able to become an integral part of the Middle Eastern family. Unlike Europe, with its variety of cultures, religions, languages and histories, the Middle East consists of an almost monolithic bloc. All Middle Eastern states have one common language, one common history, the same culture and to a great extent one common religion. Israel is not part of all this, and it also does not wish to renounce its own culture, language, tradition and history, its own identity. Had this not been a basic factor for the Jews, there would not have been any reason to establish a Jewish state in the first place.

No State Stands Alone
But if Israel is not able to be an integral part of the Middle East, what does this mean for its future? Is it destined to stand alone, not to belong to any community and to act totally independently? Such an idea would seem to belong to the Old World, to the world of nation states, and it loses its validity in the modern world. True, the tiniest country in the world today may preserve its political independence, at least in theory. But such political independence is clearly not sufficient any more. Israel draws its vitality, energy and perspectives for the future from modern science, technology and a global economy. Thus, it cannot confidently hope to keep its place in the top ranks of the most progressive states if it remains a tiny, isolated entity. Even the big European countries that are 10 or 15 times bigger than Israel have understood that in the modern world they have no competitive capabilities if they stand alone opposite current giants, like the U.S. and Japan, and future economic giants like China, India and Russia. The European Union rests and develops on this basic understanding. If this applies to countries like Germany, France, Italy and England, than it undoubtedly applies to Israel.

Not Only With America
After peace is achieved, Israel's first interest will be to become attached to one of the great powers. Obviously this will not be the United States. Indeed, Washington supports Israel almost unconditionally, and it can be assumed that it will continue to do so for many years to come. Washington will, however, not be ready to integrate Israel into the American economic system. The U.S. thinks about a big economic system that will embrace Canada and Latin America. Moreover, it considers economic ties with South-East Asia and the European Union to be of paramount importance. In this context, the Middle East is a priority only as long as it is being shaken by crises and conflicts, and only where oil must be secured. An economic integration of Israel is out of the question, and will remain even more so in the future.

Looking Toward Europe
Israel's interests are clear even if its population is not yet ready to analyze and appreciate them. Although Israel cannot become a member of the European Union, this is where it must firmly be anchored. Only then will it be able to preserve its position as a scientifically, technologically and economically advanced nation, thus guaranteeing its future. But is there also an EU interest in developing such close ties with Israel? After all, it is no secret in Europe that Israel is suspicious of the EU and insists on keeping its distance. Why should Europe show any interest in Israel and the Middle East if it is being swept aside, and if the peace process is being led exclusively by the Americans?
Europe's weakness is a transitory situation; in the final analysis it will have to assume a common foreign and defense policy, even if only for the sake of protecting its economic union and common currency. But, as we have seen, until this happens the EU cannot play a major part in the forging of a peace process. In the meantime, a certain reality has imposed itself on the region, an American one. We all know that too many cooks spoil the broth, and the longstanding cook in the Middle East is the United States. This is also understood by the Europeans. Yet their negligible influence in the Middle East will not last forever. Its weakness will be transformed into strength upon the achievement of a peace treaty in the Middle East. The real work will start after the treaty takes effect: The task of securing a vital, lasting everyday peace will then belong to the Europeans. It will also be in their interest.

REDWG - The Regional Economic Development Working Group
During the Oslo negotiations 1992/93, Israelis as well as Palestinians were (in their optimisic period) farsighted enough to think about the future that would follow the signing of the permanent peace treaty between the Palestinian state-to-be and Israel. They convinced the world community to try to elaborate a working plan for the region that would be implemented the day after the conclusion of peace. An international body known as REDWG (Regional Economic Development Working Group) was set up. Its mission was to draw up future regional development plans. Americans, Europeans, Japanese, Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians and sometimes even Syrians and Lebanese participated in this working group. The underlying idea was based on a double assumption: First, the Middle East cannot find its way to real development, similar to the example of South-East Asia, if every country in the region continues to rely only on its own efforts and capacities. The countries of the Middle East are all too small, too weak and too poor to be able to undertake such aims on their own. Second, only a concerted action will transform the backward Middle East into a modern, prosperous region.
Thus, for instance, projects like the development of water resources were thoroughly examined. We all know the lack of water is the Middle East's biggest problem, were it not for the question of war and peace. Furthermore, in view of the galloping demographic development of Middle Eastern nations, the lack of water will become dangerously crucial within a very short time. There is only one way to overcome this problem - to produce water. That means, first and foremost, the desalination of sea water. Today, we all know how to desalinate sea water, but the production of water in every country separately is far too expensive and therefore not economically feasible for agriculture and industry. Should we produce water on a much larger scale, on a regional scale, incorporating all the countries of the Middle East, the cost of water production would sink considerably and become feasible.
The problem of modern transportation is another example where development can be carried out only on a regional basis. The future of transportation on a scale like that of the Middle East belongs to modern rapid trains like the Shinkansen in Japan or the French TGV, but these trains need long distances in order to develop their speed and to be rendered profitable. No country can afford a train of this kind on its own. On a regional basis, however, such a project can well be envisaged.
Similarly, one would consider the development of tourism on a regional basis. The Middle East offers what most tourists are looking for: Sun, sea and history. But people don't like to travel long distances for a limited number of objectives. Japanese groups will not travel only to Israel or Jordan or even Egypt. They will go to the Middle East if it is offered as a "package". In other words, it will have to be done on a regional basis.
And, of course, one cannot solve ecological problems within political boundaries. Pollution and mosquitoes do not respect national frontiers. Only on a regional basis can we tackle basic problems of modern life. The idea of REDWG was simple: First, to develop the Middle East, second, to create common interests between the former belligerents of the region and bind them together, thus guaranteeing the stability of peace.

The European Economic Interest
There is, however, another element tied to the idea of common regional development projects. Somebody from outside the Middle East will have to invest, and more than just seed money, in these projects. At the discussions within the REDWG group it has become increasingly obvious that this role will belong mainly to the European Union. The Europeans will be the ones who will have the greatest and most immediate interest in preserving the newly achieved delicate peace in their neighborhood. They will also be the ones who will have the greatest interest in securing a developing Middle East as a client for their economy. They will have an interest in playing the role of the main economic partner of an emerging peaceful Middle East. Investing in regional development projects will not be a matter of so-called technical assistance. It will be based solely on economic viability. That means it will be of interest for private investors. These investors will however, at least in the beginning, need political support and guarantees. If the EU undertakes this mission it will guarantee peace in the Middle East and at the same time invest on a long-term basis for the benefit of its own economy. It will become the most influential economic partner for the Middle East and, as everybody knows, he who exercises the main economic influence also ends up exercising the major political influence.

Looking Toward the Future
With the eruption of the second intifada, REDWG was put on ice. It will certainly be revived with the institution of a new peace process. This means that Israel, with its special relationship with the European Union, should become the link between the neighbors with whom it will sign the peace treaty, on the one hand, and the European Union on the other. This way it will serve its own interests, the interests of its neighbors, particularly those of the Palestinians, as well as the interests of the European Union.