Europe Turns Toward Mideast With High-Level Appointments

By Marc Perelman

Published July 03, 2007, issue of July 06, 2007.
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Led by last week’s naming of Tony Blair as special envoy to the Middle East, a string of personnel changes in capitals across the continent has Europe poised to play a greater role in Israeli-Palestinian affairs.

In Brussels last month, the European Union agreed to grant more power to its foreign policy chief, who has traditionally led Europe’s peacemaking efforts. Both London and Paris, meanwhile, saw the naming of foreign ministers of Jewish descent. David Miliband, son of Holocaust survivors, last week became Britain’s second-youngest foreign secretary. And last month, Bernard Kouchner, whose Russian grandparents perished in Auschwitz, was tapped for the same position across the Channel.

But it was the appointment of Blair, who stepped down last week as British prime minister after 10 years in office, that gave greatest fuel to the speculation that the continent is ready to step into the diplomatic vacuum left by Washington.

A number of European countries want to pursue a more “activist” agenda, former top Clinton official Steven Simon said, and “if they can do this with Blair, European policy in the region might have some legs.”

Blair, who was appointed last week by the so-called Madrid Quartet — composed of the United States, United Nations, E.U. and Russia — will oversee efforts to rebuild the Palestinian economy and Palestinian institutions. Most experts believe, however, that he will eventually expand his mandate and delve into the core diplomatic issues that are supposedly under the purview of Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

“It is hard to believe that Blair will focus only on nation building and the like,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel. “He’s an activist, and it may prove very challenging for Washington to constrain his impulse toward expanding his mission.”

Given the worsening situation in Gaza and the tepid involvement of the Bush administration to date, even a limited mandate may prove challenging for the former British prime minister. While his appointment was welcomed by Israel, Blair’s alignment with President Bush on Iraq has caused lasting damage to his image among Palestinians, according to Rashid Khalidi, head of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University. In addition, Blair’s predecessor as the quartet’s special envoy to the Middle East, former World Bank president James Wolfensohn, left the post in frustration at the lack of momentum behind his peacemaking efforts.

“It is hard to see how he will succeed where Wolfensohn failed, unless — and this is the key — Washington ratchets up its own diplomacy and pursues a parallel track of serious diplomacy,” Kurtzer said.

While all eyes in Washington were on Blair, back in London the spotlight was on the picks of Gordon Brown, the new prime minister, to head Britain’s foreign policy. Miliband, a rising Labor Party star, was given the helm at the Foreign Office, while Simon McDonald, a former British ambassador to Israel who is fondly remembered in Jerusalem, was named Brown’s top foreign policy adviser.

In France, meanwhile, newly elected President Nicolas Sarkozy appointed Kouchner, who is half-Jewish and supported the American-led invasion of Iraq, as his foreign minister. In addition, the French president created the new position of national security adviser to coordinate foreign policy. He tapped for the job Jean-David Levitte, who until recently was France’s ambassador to Washington and whose father was the first director of the American Jewish Committee in France.

The new Jewish face of European diplomacy, however, may not necessarily translate into a dramatic shift in Middle East policy. While Kouchner has so far treaded carefully on Israeli-Palestinian matters, the French government has called a meeting in Paris later this month of all Lebanese political factions, including Hezbollah, prompting a swift condemnation by CRIF, the official Jewish umbrella organization.

Lebanon is also the only publicly known Middle East stance on which the new British foreign secretary has taken a position, and it is far from a staunchly pro-Israel one. Last summer, Miliband, who had just become environment secretary, expressed criticism of London and Washington’s hesitancy in calling for an immediate cease-fire, reportedly asking at a Cabinet meeting, “Where is this all going to end?”

In an interview with Britain’s New Statesman magazine last September, he did not deny making the remarks.

“I felt very worried, because, put it this way, I don’t think that Israel is safer and stronger now than it was two months ago. I don’t think the prospects of a secure and just two-state settlement in the Middle East are closer than they were two months ago,” he was quoted as saying.

The son of a prominent Marxist historian whose family fled Poland and arrived in England in 1940, Miliband, who was educated at Oxford and at the Massachusetts Instutitute of Technology, was recruited by then-opposition leader Blair in 1994 and became his head of policy after Labor’s 1997 electoral triumph. He became a member of parliament in 2001, entered the government the following year and was appointed environment secretary in 2006.

Miliband, to judge by an interview with the Forward in May, is not one to paper over differences with Washington. During a recent visit to the United States to advocate stronger engagement in fighting climate change, Miliband brushed aside the suggestion that Britain was spearheading efforts on the issue as way to recoup some of the international standing it lost by supporting the American-led war in Iraq.

“We have been clear,” Miliband told the Forward, “about our disagreement with the U.S. on this issue.”

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