Europe has a lot to gain from being inventive. A Turkish-EU troop offer could help unlock Gaza - and the Middle East peace process

Time for European boldness. A Turkish-EU troop offer could help unlock Gaza - and the Middle East peace process

Catherine Ashton has not had the easiest ride since taking over as the EU's new foreign policy ‘tsarina', and it is set to get harder. She is about to embark upon her first foreign trip in office, to a part of the world not known for giving diplomats and politicians an easy ride: the Middle East. She is likely to switch firmly into what politicians call ‘listening mode', trying to dodge trouble. But this might not be a time for diplomatic silence and nifty footwork; perhaps this is the time for Lady Ashton to be bold - on her own and the EU's behalf.

If she remains silent, Lady Ashton risk confirming a view that she is a foreign policy student in a world of professors. If she engages, she faces rebuttal. After all, even President Obama found the region immune to his effort and charm. But if she takes the opportunity of her Middle Eats visit to show some courage she may make the EU the kind the foreign policy player it so yearns to be.

The question then is how bold to go. There is a fine line to tread between innocuous and enterprising, between inventive and naïve. The key to success is usually lies in exploiting existing openings, building on past experiences and expanding the circle of stakeholders. One bold idea might accomplish all this: suggesting the deployment of 2000 European soldiers in a hybrid mission with Turkey to monitor the border between Gaza, Israel and Egypt, as an integral part of an intra-Palestinian reconciliation deal.

The idea of sending European troops is not new. Back in 2007 France's President Nicolas Sarkozy argued that the EU should take the lead in creating an international peacekeeping force which could replace the Israeli army in the West Bank as part of a peace deal. Think tanks like the Centre for European Reform have also long argued that the EU as part of security guarantees to Israel should offer to send peacekeepers.

But these ideas have always run to ground on the rocks of European timidity, Israeli resistance and intra-Palestinian gridlock. Fear of European casualties, and the risk of mission failure have precluded any European action. To Israeli defence planners, the softly-softly doctrine of the European element of the UN's Lebanon force does not auger well for how an EU force would operate in the West Bank and Gaza. To them, a worst case scenario would see Israeli action constrained yet Hamas rearmed.

This time, though, it could be different. The situation is worse than it has been for a long time. Yet while there may be no sign of substantive movement between the Israelis and Palestinians (though indirect negotiations conducted by US special envoy George Mitchell may move ahead) there are a number of positive developments, which if supported internationally could produce an intra-Palestinian break-through - itself a prerequisite for a larger peace process.

The Obama administration has suggested to Israel that easing the Gaza blockade would help counter the fallout from the Goldstone report on alleged war crimes during Operation Cast Lead. Meanwhile, Nabil Shaath became the first high-ranking Fatah official to visit Gaza since 2007. He met with Hamas officials, sparking rumours that the two parties may be ready to reconcile, perhaps in time for next month's Libya Arab Summit. This visit should be read together with a recent speech by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam al-Fayyad, who said that "it was essential that "our country be reunified," and that lifting the blockade of the Gaza Strip would go a long way toward enabling the PA to reassert control there.

It is too early to know whether anything will come of these overtures. But an offer to deploy a hybrid EU-Turkish mission to monitor Gaza's borders, in exchange for re-opening these to trade, could be just the impetus required to induce a Palestinian Unity Government. Deploying armed soldiers would certainly hold out the promise of alleviating the Gazans' suffering, strengthening the hand of the Palestinian Authority with its own public, and generating some Arab support for the peace process.

The initiative has the added benefit of potentially bringing Turkey back into a constructive Middle East role, while laying the foundations for a strategic EU-Turkey link not focused exclusively on EU accession. Turkish alienation from both Israel and the EU has been a serious concern for Jerusalem and Brussels. An offer of a joint mission might help bring the Ankara government back into a constructive role.  If an EU-Turkish mission could be run by a senior Turkish official, then all the better.

What would the parties think of such an idea? If the presence of EU peacekeepers would allow the re-opening of Gaza's borders, Hamas could be keen on the idea. The PA has long called for EU troops to be deployed. For its part, Israel could be induced to support a mission if it allayed fears of militant groups like Hamas rearming. That would require deploying a well-armed mission with a robust mandate - hence the need for 2000 armed soldiers, not a larger version of the previous unarmed EU border mission.

The final question is what Europeans would think. Deploying troops in Gaza would a lot riskier than patrolling the Balkans, the EU's main military job until now. Radical factions within Gaza might not want to stop using force. Israel may trample on the EU mission if it feels threatened. For Europeans, sensitive to casualties in Afghanistan, Gaza might not be their mission of choice.

It would be wrong for Lady Ashton to offer up an EU mission. For one thing she cannot make an offer to deploy EU troops; she commands no soldiers of her own and a mission to Gaza, particularly a hybrid one, would require serious negotiations and preparation. But if she were to float the idea while on her first visit she would be able to return to Brussels with a clear idea of what could be possible in the Middle East quicksand. That, in itself, may be the best possible way to build a new Middle East role for the EU.



Read more on: The Middle East and North Africa

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.