The little summit that could

Whbee's point was important because his audience was a group of European diplomats.

Majallie Whbee 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Majallie Whbee 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
'The time has come [for Arab states] to cease using international forums to vilify Israel and to publicly condemn those forces of hatred and violence that, ultimately, undermine everything they stand for," Deputy Foreign Minister Majallie Whbee, a Druse, said, rather impolitely, on Tuesday. Whbee's point was important not because he is not Jewish - the Arabs he addressed will no doubt write him off anyway as a loyal Israeli who holds a lieutenant-colonel's rank in the IDF - but because his audience was a group of European diplomats who were as embarrassed as Israel at the latest sign that all is not well in the ongoing Western attempt to engage the Arab world. Five Arab states and Israel were invited to the Mediterranean Seminar of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which was held this year in Tel Aviv. Two of these states, Egypt and Jordan, each sent a single representative - in the Jordanian case, a junior embassy staffer. The other Arab countries - Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco - either declared they would avoid the conference (titled "Combating Intolerance and Discrimination and Promoting Mutual Respect and Understanding") because of the choice of venue, or said they would come but canceled at the last minute. So with perhaps two dozen senior Israeli diplomats and politicians in the room, and perhaps twice that number from Europe and North America, the "Mediterranean dialogue" lacked the southern half of that sea. It's unfair to criticize the OSCE for something that wasn't its doing - indeed, that it would very much have liked to prevent. But since the question here is not what happened this week, but what should be done about it, it is fair to question the assumptions that have led us this far. NATO, the EU and the OSCE have been talking about a "Mediterranean idea" for the better part of two decades. Its essence lies in the notion that a "Mediterranean" identity, particularly in places such as Egypt and the Maghreb, can be used to create diplomatic alternatives to the current state of Arab-Israeli relations, so stunted and radicalized by Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism. Yet the non-attendance at this week's conference served as a demonstration that the wishful thinking of diplomats does not a diplomatic process make. The OSCE, composed of 56 countries, is an organization that works entirely by consensus, so Mediterranean partners who choose to engage with the organization do so at their whim and can withdraw just as quickly. There is no mechanism except rhetoric that the OSCE can bring to bear to enforce its institutional participation. Yet the Arab delegates who did not show up for the conference on tolerance in Tel Aviv didn't come because, on the question of Tel Aviv, they're the epitome of intolerance. The result is a powerful example not only of Whbee's worry that international institutions are used to bash Israel, but of the very notion of "soft power," its efficacy and legitimacy. Europeans, who conduct much of the business of the OSCE, often criticize American readiness to use "hard" power - military force and aggressive political rhetoric - in pursuit of their foreign policy objectives. But faced with an Arab world that can talk about tolerance and human rights and then demonstrate obvious (and usually openly declared) bigotry, the OSCE seems to feel that discrimination is a mere "setback," suggesting it expects little more from partner countries. The Arab world is not composed of healthy open societies, but largely of closed, corrupt, authoritarian dictatorships. If "engaging" in a positive way with these dictatorships means ignoring the deeply ingrained bigotry that sees Israel excluded from the realm of legitimate diplomacy, then the Mediterranean Partnership process is merely another vehicle for abetting Arab intolerance. The OSCE was aware of the problem inherent in coming to Israel, but commendably chose to do so anyway. Now the Arab states have responded by ignoring or trivializing the event, showing that the potential benefits of OSCE partnership are less important for them than denying Israel legitimacy. The ball is now in the OSCE's court. Will there be consequences for such behavior, as happened when the organization dealt with Soviet bloc countries in the past? Will the OSCE stand by its stated principles, demanding adherence to the notion of "nondiscrimination" as a prerequisite for membership, rather than merely putting the word on its letterhead? Will there be a diplomatic price to pay for discrimination? We hope so.