International Spectator

The International Spectator

Volume XXXIII No. 4 (October-December 1998)


The Arab-Israeli Multilateral Peace Talks and the Barcelona Process: Competition or Convergence? 1
By Joel Peters


On 17 October 1997, the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz ran two stories which conveyed conflicting and contradictory messages concerning the future prospects for multilateral cooperation between Israel and the Arab world. In the first of these stories, the paper reported that Saudi Arabia and Egypt, as well as a number of other Arab states, had assured the United States that they would be willing to attend the fourth Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Economic Summit, which was due to meet in Qatar in the middle of November. The increasing distrust felt within the Arab world towards Israel and the policies of Binyamin Netanyahu, the lack of confidence in his commitment to the Oslo process and the virtual collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, had rendered the prospect of this summit meeting actually taking place extremely doubtful. Many of the Arab states that had tentatively begun to develop ties with Israel after the signing of the Oslo Accords were now publicly cutting off any contact. On first reading, the resumption of talks between Israel and the Palestinians in late September, following the sustained efforts of the US special envoy to the peace process, Dennis Ross, reflected a significant shift in attitude on the part of the Arab states, who now retracted their threatened boycott of the planned summit meeting in Doha. It appeared that the Arabs were prepared to put aside their doubts about the Netanyahu government and were willing, once again, to sit down with Israel in a regional forum to discuss areas of future multilateral cooperation.

On the same page, however, in the story directly below, the newspaper also reported that a Euro-Mediterranean ministerial conference on industrial cooperation, due to be held at the end of October 1997 in Marrakesh, Morocco, as part of the Euro-Mediterranean partnership (the Barcelona process), had been cancelled on account of the participation of Israel and the unwillingness of the Arab states to sit down with Israel to discuss joint ventures and cooperative project. 2

The juxtaposition of these two stories, and the contrasting messages they conveyed, reflects the complex nature, shifting dynamics and clear inter-relationship between the multilateral and regional processes which have engaged Israel and the Arab world since the start of the Arab-Israeli peace process seven years ago.

The Arab-Israeli peace process is best known for the bilateral talks involving the immediate protagonists to the Arab-Israeli conflict. At the same time, the Madrid Conference of November 1991 also established a series of multilateral talks drawing on a wider set of participants and issues. The multilateral talks, comprising five working groups covering arms control and regional security, water, the environment, refugees and regional economic development, were designed to bring together Israel, its immediate Arab neighbours and the wider circle of Arab states in the Gulf and the Maghreb to discuss issues of regional concern. The intention was to create a framework which would focus on the future shape of the Middle East.

The multilaterals gave rise at the end of October 1994 to the holding in Casablanca of the first Middle East and North Africa (MENA) Economic Summit aimed at directly involving the private sector and business communities in the task of promoting regional economic development in the Middle East.

The Arab-Israeli multilateral talks and MENA summit meetings are not the only context in which new structures of cooperative agreement are currently being developed in the region. In October 1995, the European Union launched in Barcelona the Euro-Mediterranean partnership—the Barcelona process—aimed at developing a new framework of peaceful and cooperative relations in the Mediterranean region. Though not part of the peace process (in fact, deliberately designed to be seen as separate from it), the Barcelona process involves many of the same actors and addresses and many of the same issues covered in the Arab-Israeli multilateral talks.

In addition to these three fora, there have also been calls in recent years for the creation of a Conference (or Organisation) on Security and Cooperation in the Middle East modelled on the CSCE process in Europe. 3

The multilateral processes in the Middle East have not received the same extensive coverage by the media and commentators as the bilateral negotiations. But the experience since the launching of the peace process following the Gulf War reveals not so much a lack of multilateral endeavour in the Middle East and Mediterranean, as too much. New ideas, potential institutional structures and joint projects have been more than forthcoming. This has resulted not only in the emergence of competing frameworks and approaches, but also in a duplication of resources and initiatives, with no clear analysis of the effectiveness, value and inter-relationship of the various activities undertaken.

This article does not aim to offer a detailed description or analysis of the Arab-Israeli multilateral talks, the MENA Economic Summits or the Barcelona process. Rather, it will focus on the role of the European Union within the multilateral talks, and specifically on its activities as gavel-holder of the Regional Economic Development Working Group (REDWG) and the inter-relationship between the multilateral talks and the Barcelona process.

Of the these two regional processes, it is the latter which has received by far the most attention and which is regarded as having been the more successful. Accordingly, many people argue that Europe ought to focus its efforts in this arena. Given that the Arab-Israeli multilateral talks have been effectively suspended for the past two years and that the Arab states have made their resumption conditional on substantive progress being made between Israel and the Palestinians, it is not difficult to understand the force of this argument.

However, this article will attempt to show that the multilateral talks and the Barcelona process should not be seen as competing, but rather as complementary frameworks. Thus it is in Europe’s interest to remain engaged in the multilaterals and to support actively any efforts aimed at resuscitating this element of the peace process. The resumption of the multilateral talks should be seen as an integral part of any broader package/initiative designed to revitalise the peace process as a whole. Furthermore, it argues that greater emphasis and thought need to be placed on the efficacy of these talks in bringing about and securing peace between Israel and the Arab world, and as a consequence in promoting stability within the Mediterranean region.


Europe and the Multilateral Arab-Israeli Talks

Europe played only a minor role in the diplomatic efforts aimed at bringing Israel and the Arab states together in the aftermath of the Gulf War. Indeed, the United States turned to Moscow, not Europe, to act as co-sponsor to the Madrid Conference, despite the fact that the Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse. Nor did Europe participate in the bilateral negotiations that followed the Madrid Conference. Denied a seat in the negotiations—held in Washington under the auspices of the United States—the members of the European Union were limited to operating within the framework of five working groups of the multilateral talks set up by the Madrid Conference. 4

The multilateral talks were to run in parallel with the bilateral negotiations. The aim was to bring together Israel, her immediate Arab neighbours and the wider circle of Arab states in the Maghreb and the Gulf to address issues of regional and mutual concern. While the bilateral talks were to concentrate on the political issues of territorial control and sovereignty, border demarcations, security arrangements and the political rights of the Palestinians, the multilaterals would examine a range of economic, social and environmental issues which extend across national boundaries, the resolution of which is a prerequisite for long-term regional development ad peace in the Middle East.

The idea of the multilateral talks is grounded in a functionalist, liberalist conception of international cooperation and peace, according to which the enmeshing of the states in the region in an ever-widening web of economic, technical and welfare inter-dependencies would force them to set aside their political and/or ideological rivalries. The process of ongoing cooperation in areas of mutual concern would blur old animosities and create a new perception of shared needs. This interaction would be accompanied by a learning process which would foster a fundamental change in attitude and lead to a convergence of expectations and the institutionalisation of norms of behaviour. Progress in the multilaterals would create a vision of what real peace looks like and the benefits that would accrue to all parties, which in turn would facilitate progress in the bilateral talks. Regional cooperation was seen as a powerful tool for stimulating economic growth and social development, for helping reduce regional economic disparities and ultimately for making peace irreversible. In parallel with the European experience, functional cooperation would eventually spill over into regional peace.

That said, the addition of the multilateral track was driven by practical considerations. While the principal purpose was to bring together the regional parties, a secondary consideration was to draw the international community into the peace process. The securing of a lasting and comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict would require marshalling the support, expertise and, above all, the financial resources of the international community. One of the hopes implicit in the logic of the multilateral track was that it would send a powerful signal that all parties, regional and non-regional alike, were committed to the ending of the Arab-Israeli conflict and to the development of cooperative relations.

The widening of the peace process in this way was dismissed by many as simply a way of placating Israel, thereby ensuring its participation in the Madrid Conference, and as a poor consolation prize to the Europeans and the remainder of the international community, who had been excluded from the sponsorship of the peace process and from the substantive issues under discussion in the bilateral negotiations. Bringing together Israel and the Arab states to discuss areas of future cooperation before the core political issues had been resolved was seen not only as idealistic, but as naive as well. Few had any real expectations of what, if any, tangible benefits would emerge from the talks. However, with the breakthroughs achieved at the bilateral level between Israel and the Palestinians, and with the signing of the peace treaty between Israel and Jordan, the regional and economic component of the peace process gained increased significance and consequently enhanced Europe’s role within the peace process.

The European Union was entrusted with the running of the Regional Economic Development Working Group (REDWG), the largest of the five working groups and the one which most comprehensively reflected the broader goals of the multilateral track. 5 As gavel-holder for this working group, the European Union has been active in promoting ideas and ventures for future economic cooperation among the parties of the region. During the first three rounds of these talks, held in Brussels (May 1992), Paris (October 1992) and Rome (May 1993), a list of ten spheres of activity was drawn up, and ‘shepherds’ were assigned responsibility for the running of projects in each of these areas. The majority of the projects focused either on infrastructure development or on exploring areas of sectoral coordination. The areas covered were: communications and transport (led by France); energy (EU); tourism (Japan); agriculture (Spain); financial markets (United Kingdom); trade (Germany); training (United States); networks (EU); institutions, sectors and principles (Egypt); and bibliography (Canada).

The fourth round of talks took place in Copenhagen in November 1993, shortly after the signing of the Declaration of Principles between Israel and the Palestinians. In the light of the breakthrough at the bilateral level, there was overwhelming recognition in Copenhagen of the need to intensify the workings of the REDWG to ensure that its activities would not become marginalised. Accordingly, the group adopted the Copenhagen Action Plan, which outlined thirty-three different ventures. This plan has subsequently formed the working basis of the activities of the REDWG. At the subsequent plenary meetings in Rabat (June 1994) and Bonn (January 1995), the countries responsible reported on the various activities undertaken and announced new initiatives within their respective spheres. In order to finance these activities, $9.2 million was made available by the European Union for the preparation of the various studies and for the running of inter-sessional activities to ensure the rapid implementation of the Copenhagen Action Plan.

The European Union has taken the lead in encouraging the regional parties to explore ideas about the future long-term nature of their economic relations and to develop a vision of potential institutional mechanisms and frameworks to support and sustain their efforts towards regional cooperation. As a preliminary step in this direction, the European Union convened an informal session at the end of the Rome meeting to allow regional parties to air their views. At the plenary meeting in Rabat, the regional parties agreed upon a number of guidelines and principles to steer their work in the future. Specifically, they recognised the need for:

The working group also agreed in Rabat to establish a smaller Monitoring Committee which would be staffed by parties from the region. The aim in setting up this Committee was to allow the core regional parties—Egypt, Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians—to take a more direct role in implementing the Copenhagen Action Plan, in organising the various sectoral activities and in developing a set of priorities and identifying future projects for the working group. It was also agreed that the Monitoring Committee would be jointly chaired by the core regional participants and by the European Union. The regional parties’ co-chairmanship would be held for six months and would rotate alphabetically, with Egypt assuming the chair on 1 January 1995. The specific work of the Monitoring Committee was divided among four sectoral committees whose membership has been confined to the four core regional parties. The chairing of these committees has been shared out, with Egypt taking on responsibility for work in finance, Israel in trade, Jordan for promoting regional infrastructure, and the Palestinians for chairing the committee on tourism.

Having set up the Monitoring Committee, it soon became apparent that in order to effectively coordinate such a broad and extensive range of activities, a Secretariat was required that was located within the region itself. It was also decided to appoint an executive secretary, who would be provided by the European Union, and that the Secretariat would be staffed by personnel from the region, to service better the work of the Monitoring Committee and the four sectoral committees. Determining the location of the Secretariat proved much harder, and it was only at the Amman Economic Summit in November 1995 that the regional parties agreed that it should be based permanently in Amman. In practice, however, the Secretariat, with a skeleton staff, had been operating out of Amman since March 1995. Since its establishment, this Secretariat has serviced nearly one hundred regional meetings and workshops focusing on practical programmes, often of a technical nature, aimed at promoting regional economic cooperation.

The various activities of REDWG have not received much attention. As a consequence, many people question the value of the working group and its contribution to the process of economic development in the region and to peace building between Israel and the Arab world. After nearly eight years of meetings, it is difficult to identify individual successes and to pinpoint specific projects that are a direct result of the deliberations of the working group.

Furthermore, since the change of government in Israel and the election of Binyamin Netanyahu, the activities of REDWG (as is the case with the other four working groups) have ground to a virtual halt. Neither the REDWG plenary meeting nor the Monitoring Committee have met since May 1996, whilst the four sectoral committees have not been active for the past eighteen months. Although the Secretariat is still operational, it has struggled to find a role for itself.

At the same time, however, it is important not to dismiss the value and contribution of REDWG too hastily, nor of the multilateral track as a whole. From the outset there was recognition by all sides that progress in the multilateral talks was dependent upon developments on the bilateral stage. It was understood that no agreements, however limited in scope, could be reached or implemented prior to a significant breakthrough in the bilateral talks. Although potential mutually beneficial arrangements might emerge from discussions in the multilateral meetings, there was no expectation that these talks would substitute for agreements at the bilateral level. Yet the multilaterals played an important complementary role to the bilateral talks. They defined a valuable division of labour and separation of issues by providing a forum for the discussion of areas that are primarily technical in nature, but that might nevertheless impede agreement on fundamental issues or create stumbling blocks to the achievement of a full settlement.

The multilateral track also allowed the parties to attend to long-term issues which would need addressing if and when a settlement is reached. Without the talks it would not have been possible to develop collective concepts for future regional economic, social and cultural relations. Such long-term thinking and planning cannot take place in the context of the bilateral negotiations, which are inevitably governed by more pressing concerns. Breaking issues down into narrowly defined functional areas and bringing together experts from regional and extra-regional parties facilitates the exchange of opinions and concerns, and creates the potential for alternative solutions.

The multilaterals have led to the emergence of a number of “epistemic communities”, defined as “a network of professionals with recognised expertise and competence in a particular domain and an authoritative claim to policy-relevant knowledge within that domain, which may affect decisions at the policy level”. This was noted by the former US Assistant Secretary of State, Edward Djerejian, in his observations on the Working Group on the Environment:

The mode of operation has been to bring experts—not politicians or diplomats—from the region together at workshops and set them to addressing the problems. What we found was that when we put these experts together they solved problems. Beyond the glare of the political klieglights, we created an environment where scientists spoke a common language.

Continuous interaction between specialists from the different countries can, over time, foster a convergence of expectations and the institutionalisation of norms of behaviour, and this is not restricted to experts in the various technical fields. Through the multilateral process, the states of the Middle East began to develop a set of principles, norms, rules and decision-making procedures to govern the nature of their future relations. Although embryonic in its nature and functioning, the REDWG Secretariat in Amman reflects the first tentative steps towards the fashioning of new common structures of cooperation, coordination and decision-making in the Middle East. At this moment, at least, it is the first, and remains the only, functioning regional institution generated by the Middle East peace process and sired by the European Union, in which Egyptian, Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian officials have been working together on a daily basis.


The Barcelona Process

The Arab-Israeli multilateral talks are not the only context in which Europe has been engaged in trying to develop new structures of cooperative relationships in the region. In November 1995, the European Union launched in Barcelona its Euro-Mediterranean Partnership—the Barcelona process—aimed at developing a new framework of peaceful and cooperative relations in the Mediterranean region. The Euro-Mediterranean Partnership brought together the fifteen member states of the European Union and its twelve Mediterranean partners. 7

The Barcelona Declaration outlined three broad objectives:

The Barcelona process envisages not just the eventual integration of the economies of the states of the Mediterranean region, but also the development of new cooperative frameworks for future political, security and civil relations. Its long-term objective is the “creation of a more integrated set of relationships than those engendered by the bilateral customs agreements and financial protocols of the 1970s and 1980s. What is sought now is no less than a ‘stability pact’ which situates economic development and trade relations in the broader context of Mediterranean security”. 8

The notion of linking the European Union with the poorer states of the Southern Mediterranean was driven by the idea that closer political and socio-cultural relations would emerge through the dynamics of building large transnational trading and investment blocs and through the creation of a free trade zone. To this end, the European Union committed 4.7 billion ECU in Barcelona, to be distributed over a period of five years, for infrastructure development and financial adjustment programmes with the aim of creating a free trade zone across the Mediterranean region by the year 2010.

The development and launching of the Barcelona process received their impetus from the progress made in the Arab-Israeli peace process. By November 1995 it appeared as if Israel and the Arab states had finally turned the corner and were heading towards a lasting and comprehensive resolution to the conflict. The signing of the Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles in September 1993 had led to a series of breakthroughs between Israel and its Arab neighbours. In May 1994, Israel and the PLO signed the Gaza-Jericho accord, resulting in an Israeli withdrawal from those areas, and the transfer of civilian powers to the Palestinians. This was followed by the signing in September 1995 of the Oslo II interim agreement, leading to the redeployment of Israeli forces from the major centres of population in the West Bank. The breakthrough between Israel and the Palestinians was the catalyst for Israel and Jordan to put aside their differences and sign a full peace treaty on 26 October 1996. It also paved the way for a qualitative and quantitative change in the activities of the five working groups of the multilaterals and allowed for the opening up of economic relations between Israel and the countries of North Africa and the Gulf. In the case of Morocco and Tunisia, Israeli diplomatic interest offices had been opened in their capitals

By the time of the Barcelona Conference, Israel and the Arab participant countries had been actively working towards a greater degree of cooperation between their countries. Indeed, many of the sectoral issues under discussion within the Barcelona framework, such as water management, tourism, environment and trade, mirror projects within the multilateral talks. In many cases it was not only issues that were duplicated, but bureaucracies and officials too. As a result the collegiality, understandings, personal contacts and working relationships of the multilaterals spilled over into the Barcelona framework. The exceptions to this were Syria and Lebanon, which had consistently refused to attend any of the meetings of the five Arab-Israeli multilateral working groups, arguing that the Arab world should not discuss regional cooperation with Israel until a comprehensive political settlement had been reached at the bilateral level. However, in the case of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, both Syria and Lebanon took their seats around the table and were signatories, along with Israel, to the Barcelona Declaration.

The multilateral talks and the Barcelona process exhibit similar conceptual thinking. Both processes reflect the increasingly prevalent post-Cold War approach of viewing security from more than just the military perspective, and focus on the underlying cause of conflict and the particular nature of any security issue. In the current international system, security threats are not seen as deriving solely from political challenges to the status quo. The realm of threats to “international peace and security” is no longer defined in terms of inter-state conflict, but is considered to include a broad range of issues such as internal disintegration, migration flows, environmental degradation, human rights and economic development. Traditional responses to security threats, such as enhanced military capacity and deterrence strategies, and new alliances, are no longer seen as sufficient to tackle the complex range of challenges facing the nation state.

Security today is clearly a multi-faceted issue. There is an increasing emphasis on the need to develop new frameworks of “cooperative security” which will address the root causes of conflict and promote confidence, rather than relying on deterrence or containment. Accordingly, states in specific regional areas are being forced to work towards finding solutions to their security concerns amongst themselves and to creating new cooperative frameworks to address those concerns.

Much was made of Europe’s success in bringing Syria and Lebanon to the debating table with Israel in a multinational forum, something which the multilateral peace talks and the Middle East and North Africa Economic Summits had failed to do. But the designers of the Barcelona process had gone to great lengths to keep the agenda of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership distinct from the Arab-Israeli peace process. Such a separation was possible as long as there was tangible progress in the peace process and, in particular, on the central issue of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation.

Whilst the multilateral talks and the Barcelona process reflect similar conceptual thinking and have as their long-term objectives the development of regional cooperative frameworks, the immediate dynamics and the underlying interests of the parties concerned differ fundamentally. At the most fundamental level, the Arab-Israeli multilateral talks, and in particular the REDWG, have provided the framework wherein the Arab world has redefined its relationship with Israel and Israel’s role within the emerging structure of international politics in the Middle East. The multilaterals were not, as their many detractors have argued, and as they have frequently been portrayed, simply about offering Israel the opportunity of normalising relations with the Arab world. The multilaterals provided a forum for low-risk communication and exchanges between Israel and the Arab states, allowing each to address common concerns, to explore new ideas and to think in regional terms. In this respect the multilateral talks have provided the framework, have set the boundaries and have helped shape “the rules of the game” concerning the nature, extent and scope of future relations between Israel and the Arab world. It is through these meetings that issues such as the extent to which cooperation with Israel was feasible, how Israel might be a source of benefit to the region, and how it posed a challenge to the future welfare of Arab societies, were played out.

The multilateral talks have been concerned with redefining the relationship between Israel and the Arab world. In contrast, the Barcelona process has been concerned with re-defining the relationship between the European Union and the Mediterranean states on its southern periphery, and on developing mechanisms for the closer integration of their economies. This reflects the prevalent European perception that the primary causes of instability in the Mediterranean region are economic and, as far as the non-European Mediterranean partners are concerned, reflects their desire to obtain the grants and soft loans offered by the European Union and their hope that their goods will be more accessible on the European market.

The connection between economic development and regional stability in the Mediterranean was outlined in one of the key documents produced in preparation for the Barcelona meeting. “... there are many areas of Euro-Mediterranean interdependence, notably environment, energy, migration, trade and investment. The Community has a vital interest in helping Mediterranean countries meet the challenge they face. The objective should be to work towards a Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. This would start with a progressive establishment of free trade, supported by substantial financial aid.” 9

While the Barcelona process is aimed at creating a new regional multilateral configuration, the achievement of this long-term goal has been based on, and priority given to the negotiation of a series of bilateral association agreements between the European Union and the eleven southern Mediterranean countries and the Palestinian Authority. The social, political and security agenda of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership has played a secondary role and has increasingly been seen as a long-term offshoot of economic development.

The distancing and the separation of the Barcelona process from the Arab-Israeli peace process was only possible because of progress made in the Palestinian question. It was in the multilateral talks that the re-shaping and re-defining of relations between Israel and Arab world was taking place, thus allowing the Mediterranean parties at Barcelona to pursue their wider objectives with Europe. In short, the resolution of the Palestinian question could be set aside from the economic agenda of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. In the context of bringing about peace and security in the Arab-Israeli arena, the Barcelona process pron vided a complementary diplomatic environment in which tensions could be reduced between Israel and the Arab states. Indeed, many of the issues discussed in the multilaterals such as water resources, industry and energy policy, tourism and environment, found resonance in the follow-up meetings to the Barcelona Conference. Many of the security issues under discussion at the Barcelona process built upon the ideas developed within the Arms Control and Regional Security Working Group. 10 The social and cultural provisions of the Euro-Mediterraneainitiative also allowed for the bringing together of Israeli and Arab civil society, an essential component for long-term reconciliation and lasting peace in the Middle East.

This division of labour between the two multilateral processes continued despite setbacks to the peace process and protracted negotiations surrounding Israel’s redeployment from Hebron following the election of Binyamin Netanyahu. Whilst these difficulties led to the slowing down of inter-sessional activities in the multilaterals and to their eventual suspension in the middle of December 1996, Israel and the Arab states nevertheless continued to meet in a series of follow-up meetings established within the Barcelona process. However, keeping the problems of the peace process out of the Barcelona deliberations was only possible as long as there was reason to believe that these problems were short-term.

As distrust of Netanyahu grew and differences between Israel and the Palestinians became more ingrained, so issues pertaining to the peace process began increasingly to creep into discussions, especially where these concerned political and security cooperation.

The original intention was to hold the follow-up ministerial conference in Tunis. However, fears that the stalled peace process would jeopardise proceedings led to the event being moved to Valetta, Malta. This deflected the problem, but did not remove it entirely, and the faltering peace process dominated the proceedings anyway. At meetings leading up to the Malta Conference, virtually all preparation of documents relating to the political and security chapters of the Barcelona Declaration was paralysed. Arab states were adamant that any arrangement at Malta that could be construed as security-related cooperation with Israel be avoided. European officials went out of their way to stress that they did not want the Malta meeting to be dominated by the crisis in Israeli-Palestinian relations. “... we intend to make sure that the Euro-Mediterranean relationship is the focus of the meeting”, an aide to a European Commissioner insisted, “we will not let our relationship with these countries become hostage to the Middle East peace process”. 11

These words were not matched in deed. European officials made strenuous efforts to bring about a meeting between Yasser Arafat and Israel’s foreign minister, David Levy, during the conference. That these two leaders did meet—the first high level contact between the two sides since Israel’s decision to start building new homes in Har Homa/Jabal Abu Ghenaim in East Jerusalem in February—was heralded as a great success and testimony to Europe’s capacity to help bring Israel and the Palestinians together.

Yet these efforts detracted from the broader agenda of the Euro-Mediterranean Partnership. The attempt to resurrect the Arab-Israel peace process during the Malta Conference ensured that this now became the chief focus of the process, thus holding future sectoral cooperation in the Mediterranean hostage to the fortunes of peace in the Middle East. From this point on, the stalemate in the peace process has continued to thwart all efforts to push forward the Barcelona process.


Conclusion—Ways Forward

The preceding analysis has sought to highlight the inter-relationship between the Arab-Israeli multilateral talks and the Barcelona process. Both processes received their impetus from the breakthrough and progress achieved between Israel and the Palestinians after the signing of the Declaration of Principles in September 1993. Similarly, both processes have encountered setbacks as a consequence of the breakdown in confidence between the two sides over the past two years. The optimism engendered by the Oslo agreements and the signing of the Declaration has been replaced by pessimism. The multilateral talks have effectively been suspended for the past two years and there are no current plans for convening a fifth MENA Economic Summit meeting. The multitude of regional and multilateral initiatives in the Middle East are rapidly becoming a distant memory.

Prospects for reviving the regional dimension of the peace process and for renewing discussions between Israel and the Arab world on long-term cooperative frameworks is clearly dependent on progress being made in the peace process. Without such progress, the Arab states will refuse to sit down with Israel at multilateral forums.

The recent signing of the Wye River memorandum and the beginning of final status talks between Israel and the Palestinians have created the conditions for the resumption of diplomatic endeavours within the multilateral track. Efforts in this direction, however, should not be made dependent solely on the fulfilment of certain conditions at the bilateral level nor on the conclusion of final status talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The multilateral talks offered Israel and the Arab world an alternative diplomatic space in which to discuss the nature of their future relations, and afforded them the opportunity to attend to long-term issues which need to be addressed if and when a settlement is reached. Without them there would have been no collective concepts for regional economic, social and cultural relations, since the bilateral negotiations are inevitably governed by more immediately pressing concerns. In that respect the multilaterals have contributed to the post-settlement phase of the peace process.

The value and contribution of the multilaterals extended beyond merely offering Israel the opportunity to normalise relations with the Arab world; beyond offering it the fruits of peace before a final settlement had been secured. The European Union needs to play an active role in future efforts to revive the multilaterals and in ensuring that the multilateral track be included in any overall package designed to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table. Furthermore, Europe should devote greater attention to this aspect of the peace process, and not regard the multilaterals simply as a sideshow or consolation prize for not having been given a major role in the bilateral negotiations. Nor should the Barcelona process be seen as an alternative (or competing) multilateral framework in which the European Union directs its efforts to bring about a reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world. Both the multilateral talks and the Barcelona process have furnished Israel and the Arab world with environments conducive to the discussion and exchange of ideas.

Although similar in their long-term objectives, agendas and participants, these two frameworks, as this article has sought to demonstrate, contribute different yet complementary approaches to the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict. That division of labour needs to be maintained. When the Barcelona process took upon itself the role of peace mediator between Israel and the Arab world, in addition to its primary task of regulating economic relations between the European Union and its southern Mediterranean neighbours, the result was a dilution of the effectiveness of the European Union in both environments. The European Union has a vital interest and an important role to play in the revival and success of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But these efforts should be directed within the context of the peace process and in coordination with the United States.

A policy which simultaneously encourages diplomatic efforts in both the multilateral talks and the Barcelona process runs the danger of over-stretching limited resources. In theory, there is much to be gained from Israel and the Arab states having numerous multilateral frameworks in which to develop ideas and find ways of overcoming their differences. In practice, however, the numerous gatherings were a drain on the limited human and financial resources available. There is a limit to the number of places and meetings which officials can simultaneously attend. Future multilateral efforts will require a greater level of coordination and transparency. This is particularly true in the case of European foreign ministries, where a number of departments have dealt with different processes, with little coordination or knowledge of the activities of the rest.

It also demands a greater level of coordination and cooperation between Europe and the United States. The multilateral talks and the MENA economic summits were seen to have been dominated by the United States, with the European Union playing only a minor role. The Americans have been deliberately excluded from the proceedings of the Barcelona process, giving rise to the impression that there are two competing multilateral regional frameworks. Neither the United States nor the European Union, by themselves, possess the capacity to bring about a comprehensive and lasting settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict or to develop new structures of regional cooperation. Transatlantic competition over the leadership and continued working of the multilaterals does nothing to bring about reconciliation between Israel and the Arab world. Equally, there is little to be gained by either Israel or the Arab states making separate appeals to the United States or Europe to play a more active role in the multilaterals at the expense and to the exclusion of the other. Regionalism and new frameworks for cooperative security have become a predominant feature of the international system in the post-Cold War era. The European Union has an important role to play in helping to foster efforts for transforming relations in the Middle East and the Mediterranean region from a conflictual to a more cooperative and peaceful basis in the future. It also has a responsibility to itself as well to the region not to shirk from those efforts.

Joel Peters is Lecturer in International Relations in the Department of Politics, University of Reading, England, and Visiting Lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics, Ben Gurion University, Israel during the academic year 1998-99.



Note 1: An earlier version of this article was written for the project “Europe and the Middle East” carried out jointly by the Bertelsmann Foundation, Guetersloh, and the Center for Applied Policy Research, University of Munich.  Back.

Note 2: For more details of this meeting, see  Back.

Note 3: Israel and Jordan, in Article 4 of their peace treaty, commit themselves to the setting up of such a framework.  Back.

Note 4: For details of the five working groups, see J. Peters, Pathways to Peace; The Multilateral Arab-Israeli Peace Talks (London: The Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1996).  Back.

Note 5: This article will only look at the role of the European Union in REDWG. Member states of the European Union have participated in several of the activities of the other working groups and several states have contributed to organising some activities, but on the whole Europe has played only a marginal role in those working groups.  Back.

Note 6: US Department of State Dispatch, 11 October 1993, vol. 4, no. 41, p. 698.

Note 7: The twelve invited partners were Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Malta, Turkey, Cyprus, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Libya has not been invited to the join the Barcelona process.  Back.

Note 8: C. Spencer, “A Tale of Two Cities”, The World Today, March 1997.  Back.

Note 9: Communication from the Commission to the Council and the European Parliament, Strengthening the Mediterranean Policy of the European Union: Establishing a Euro-Mediterranean Partnership, Brussels, Com (94) 427 final 19 October 1994.  Back.

Note 10: See F. Tanner, “The Euro-Med Partnership: Prospects for Arms Limitations and Confidence Building after Malta”, The International Spectator, vol. 32, no. 2, April-June 1997.  Back.

Note 11: Middle East International, 18 April 1997.  Back.