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Conferences all day long

Posted by Helen Monday, December 06, 2004

Back in the days of sovietology there was a somewhat satirical song about the subject, written by people who had a genuine interest in developments in the Soviet Union. One verse of it went as follows:

Conferences all day long
On Marxist ideology.
Is Brezhnev getting weak or strong?
That is sovietology.
Irrepressibly, this came to my mind as I read the news in the Daily Telegraph that Tony Blair has secured his Middle Eastern conference for early next year, though with a number of important caveats.

As our readers will recall, Prime Minister Blair’s famous visit to President Bush soon after the latter’s re-election was supposed to include a shopping list, which, in the end, narrowed down to just one item, so far as anyone could tell: a Middle Eastern conference in London. (Sad to say, in a fit of misguided Anglophilia, the Heritage Foundation supported his plan.)

Equally famously, President Bush said that there was no point in holding a conference unless something would come out of it. We all cheered while the “colleagues”, that is Chirac, Schröder and their various acolytes, notably Zapatero, jeered. Look, look, they said, what is the use of sucking up to the Americans, they will not give you what you want anyway.

It did not seem to occur to any of them that there might be other reasons for supporting the war against terror or that if Blair had some real ideas about foreign and security policy, they might have been discussed.

Anyway, it seems he has managed to convince the American leadership, at least up to a point, to show that they are supporting him and agree to this conference. What exactly will it achieve? Probably nothing. But it will be a conference.

In the first place, it is not clear whether Israel will send a high level delegation. The European foreign ministers will go ahead anyway and, no doubt, make much of that fact. Nevertheless, it is pointless to have discussions that do not include one of the key players. In fact, they may not send a delegation at all, and neither will the Americans, unless Mahmoud Abbas is elected to be leader of the Palestinian Authority on January 9. Should Marwan Barghouti, imprisoned for the murder of several people, be chosen, a signal would be given from Palestine that there is little interest in a genuine peace process. What price a conference then?

Even if Abbas wins the election, would it be clear by the end of January or beginning of February whether he is in control of the Palestinian Territory? Would he have had time to deal with Hammas, Hizbollah, Fata and all those other wonderful organizations? (Of course, the Israelis have been dealing with Hammas by taking their leading members out, but that still leaves the problem of the organization's activities in the area nominally under the PA’s control.)

Then there is the Iraqi election, scheduled for January 30. If the conference takes place before that, little attention would be spared from what is going on in Iraq. If in February, the outcome will remain unpredictable throughout the planning period and, in any case, the problem of how far the new government’s writ runs, will not yet be solved.

All in all, President Bush’s original comment stands. What is the point of a large, expensive, disruptive (I speak feelingly as a Londoner) conference if it comes up with nothing at all? One cannot help feeling that Prime Minister Blair must enjoy being the world’s laughing stock. Why else would he be so anxious to promote this idea? Could it be, as I said above, that he really has no idea of what to do except call conferences? Like his colleagues in the EU, he has no feeling for substance but likes to tinker with structures.

Meanwhile, some good news from the Middle East: there has been an exchange of prisoners between Egypt and Israel with strong indications that more will follow. Egypt has released Azzam Azzam, an Israeli Arab businessman, accused of espionage and found guilty on distinctly dubious grounds. Israel has released four Egyptian students. When people start exchanging prisoners the atmosphere inevitably becomes more relaxed. But this can be done only by individual countries or governments talking to each other not by pointless conferences or peace roadmaps designed by international organizations.