What was the EU's "Foreign Minister" Lady Ashton doing in Israel on September 30, a religious holiday when the country's most secular politicians were away from their desks? Her choice was even more surprising because, according to diplomatic sources, she hurriedly arranged the unscheduled visit while she was in Washington by calling a senior Israeli official rather than going through the regular channels.
The reasons for the rush become evident when one looks at French President Nicolas Sarkozy's busy diplomatic schedule for that week. Fresh from his bruising row with the EU over the deportation of thousands of Roma back to Romania — a fellow EU state — President Sarkozy must have thought that a distraction might restore his prestige. And what better chance of doing so than brokering peace in the Middle East behind the back of the EU? In one fell swoop, France could respond to the rough treatment it had just had to endure. On the day after Israel's settlement building moratorium ended, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas stood on the steps of the Elysée Palace, shoulder-to-shoulder with Sarkozy. No wonder, then, that Ashton was dispatched to Jerusalem two days later — despite official Israel being closed for the High-Holy Days. In truth, her Middle East mission was to show Sarkozy who was boss.
This pettiness reveals why Europe's policy in the region hardly matters, beyond the lavish if ineffectual disbursement of funding to prop up Europe's Neighbourhood Watch policy. First, nobody is in charge. It's not that Ashton lacks the experience or the gravitas — Sarkozy launched his diplomatic missions in open competition with her predecessor too, as did other European governments. It's just that solving the Middle East's problems is everyone's pet project. It's a sure-fire way to gain immortal fame for otherwise colourless politicians.
This pettiness is also a reflection of the superficiality of Europe's understanding of the region and its challenges. The former British Prime Minister Tony Blair — now the Quartet's envoy to the Middle East — was quick to blame this shallowness in a Washington speech. Referring to the fight against radical Islam, he said: "I do not think it is possible to defeat the extremism without defeating the narrative that nurtures it. And there's the rub. The practitioners of the extremism are small in number. The adherents of the narrative stretch far broader into parts of mainstream thinking. And what is this narrative?
"It is that Islam is basically oppressed by the West, disrespected and treated unfairly, that the military action we took post-9/11 was against countries because they are Muslim, and that in the Middle East we ignore the injustice done to Palestinians in our desire to support Israel because the Palestinians are Muslims and the Israelis predominantly Jews."
All the well-meaning European leaders who travel back and forth between Israel and the Palestinian territories in the hope of achieving peace and preventing others from taking that honour away from them (not necessarily in that order) subscribe to that mistaken narrative in one way or another.
Ashton, after all, begged the Israelis to receive her, though they were on holiday. The Israelis were happy to help and complied — and what did they get in return? An official reprimand, the day she arrived, about Israel's refusal to extend the moratorium on settlement construction, as if the destiny of the world (not to mention Lady Ashton's prestige) depended on it.
As if peace required only Israeli concessions — and unless those concessions were forthcoming the rage of the Muslim world was somehow justified. This is, after all, the gist of what Lady Ashton said in her first major foreign policy speech in Cairo last March, when she defined the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict as not only a "vital European interest" but also one that is "central to the solution of other problems in the region".
Here was the top European diplomat telling Arab dictators (she uttered her words at the headquarters of the Arab League) that all their failures combined could somehow be explained by the lack of Israeli-Palestinian peace, which in turn she blamed on Israel's occupation.
It is a sad testament to European history — one that once produced great scholarship and a deep understanding of the faraway regions of the world that Europe ruled for so long — that the Continent's elected (and unelected) leaders' knee-jerk instinct to apologise and feel guilty for the past leads them to endorse a narrative of grievance while disguising their petty ego-quarrels as the lofty business of state.