Better Mediterraneanism than Arabism

Plato compared the Mediterranean to a pond on whose banks too many frogs croaked.

mediterranean sea 298 ap (photo credit: AP [file])
mediterranean sea 298 ap
(photo credit: AP [file])
Plato compared the Mediterranean to a pond on whose banks too many frogs croaked. That was then, in the days of ancient Greece. Since then the croaking of the frogs has grown louder and fiercer as Moors squared off with Spaniards, Ottomans with Greece and the Balkans - just two of the many cases of blood and thunder that characterized the region throughout history. In more modern times we have seen the enmity between Turks and Greeks, Serbs and Croats and Albanians, Muslims and Christians in Lebanon, Egypt and elsewhere and, of course, the continuing strife between Arabs and Israelis. We witness daily the tensions between the southern lands of the Mediterranean and the north as illegal immigrants make their way to Spain, France and Italy, and from there to other countries in Europe. Commenting on the Mediterranean basin, a noted Italian scholar declared, "There is no other part of our planet in which so many contradictions and similarities, tensions and convergences, identities and differences, have emerged across time as they have here." On that basis, one is tempted to say that French President Nicolas Sarkozy's effort to create a Mediterranean Union is pie in the sky. The divergences appear to be too great to be reconciled under one unifying umbrella. The skeptics will hasten to tell you that there is no such thing as a Mediterranean identity, that Mediterraneanism does not exist. From a purely political point of view such skepticism is nonsense. The divergences are no less and no more than those that had existed in Europe. Indeed, nothing in the Mediterranean area - with the possible exception of our own conflict - can compare to the enmity that existed at the end of the Second World War between Germany and the countries it had occupied. Ask a Dutchman in the late '40s or early '50s if he would be willing to join forces with Germans and he would have laughed at you. The rivalry between France and Germany - or between France and Great Britain for that matter - went back centuries. Europe was a hotchpotch of different cultures and languages, whose peoples fought each other with a ferocity far exceeding anything seen in the Mediterranean (with the exception of the atrocities committed by the European Crusaders). Moreover, in most Mediterranean countries climate, fauna, landscape, food and drink and even music have a great deal in common. Compare these same features between the Latin countries of southern Europe to the northern members of the European Union - Portugal or Spain compared to Sweden or Finland, for example - and you will find much more in common in the Mediterranean basin than in the EU. The great difference, of course, lies in the fact that all members of the European Union are democratic countries dedicated to peace and to human rights, while the same cannot be said for all the countries bordering the Mediterranean. For Sarkozy's Mediterranean Union, therefore, to succeed it must have as its fundamental aim the promotion of true democratic values and the respect of human rights in those countries in which these beliefs are not yet sufficiently embedded, and, even more so, it must actively encourage peace efforts among those countries of the Mediterranean still engaged in conflict, none more than Israel and its neighbors. As an Israeli, I naturally prefer to see some of the Arab countries looking toward the Mediterranean than having them as part of an all-Arab bloc. I prefer Mediterraneanism to Arabism. An Arab friend of mine from Bahrain told me some time ago: "The Middle East as a region is becoming increasingly artificial. We in the Gulf are looking toward India and Pakistan and can be said to be part of the Indian Ocean orbit. Egypt, Lebanon, the Maghreb have become part of the Mediterranean orbit, and have more contacts, economic and other, with other Mediterranean countries than with us." Another friend of mine, a prominent lawyer in Egypt, is trying to set up a Mediterranean Businessmen's Club. His rationale is that closer contacts between Egypt and the Mediterranean countries will help bring about greater liberalism in Egyptian society. Some time ago, a group of Italian bankers established a Mediterranean Bank with the aim of helping Maghrebi businessmen set up shop in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia. The rationale behind the bank was two-fold: to create jobs in the North African countries and thus reduce the number of immigrants flowing into Europe, and to underwrite Italy's predominant position in the Mediterranean. The Bank achieved neither of these aims, and Sarkozy was quick to pick up the gauntlet and show that France could lead a Mediterranean policy. Will we see one day a Mediterranean Union similar to the European Union, with a Mediterranean parliament, a common foreign policy and dozens of different fields in which the countries of the Mediterranean will be working together? I doubt it, certainly not as long as the Arab-Israeli conflict continues to exist, unless Israel would be excluded from the club, which is something that no European country along the shores of the Mediterranean could consider. WE SHOULD not, however, underestimate the importance of what happened in Paris this week. Sarkozy will do everything possible to make his new Union a success. The Mediterranean is Europe's soft underbelly. The immigrants keep coming in, and no way has been found to stop them. Large-scale economic ventures in the North African countries may be one way to stem the tide. Our media were justifiably quick to pick on the Syrian aspect of the Mediterranean conference. The Syrians had the most to gain. They have been relegitimized - with the blessing of the French and the indirect help of the Israelis. They have been brought in from the cold, which in France under president Chirac had reached freezing point for them. Chirac was a close, personal friend of former Lebanese prime minister Hariri, and Chirac vented his rage following Hariri's assassination on the Syrians, whom he considered to be responsible for the murder. There were no handshakes between President Assad and Prime Minister Olmert, no outward signs of a thawing of the ice. Yet if there is one thing that Sarkozy wants to achieve with his Mediterranean initiative it is to foster peace in the Middle East, between Israel and the Palestinians, between Syria and Lebanon, between Israel and the Syrians. Without such an effort the French Mediterranean Union project would have little or no meaning. France took over the presidency of the European Union at the beginning of July. France has been in the forefront of European acquiescence to the upgrading of Israel's relations with the European Union. It will use the coming six months of its presidency to push a much more assertive European policy in the Middle East. The Bush administration has entered its twilight zone. The next administration will take months to get its act together, especially with regards to its foreign policy. We can expect Europe, led by France, to exploit this intermediary period, and to act in our neighborhood not only on economic matters, as it has done until now, but in an area reserved until now for the United States only - to engage the peace process heads on. For that to succeed, however, there will be a need for strong and willing governments, Israeli and Palestinian, to go along with that initiative. And strong governments, on both sides of the fence, is the one thing we don't have.•