Saturday, September 24, 2011


It was expected and it arrived on time. President Abbas asked for statehood to the United Nations along the pre-1967 war lines. In doing so he is taking enormous risks, getting support from the well-meaning as well as from the rogue states and entities. At the same time he might alienate many Europeans, the United States, and, last but not least, Israel. The Quartet is still painfully intervening (deadlines without providing for a stop of the settlements, might condemn it to be an other non-starter.) The deliberations in the Security Council, when and if they happen, will take time. Besides the American veto is the sword of Damocles which might behead a legitimate but ill-timed ambition.

History makes strange U-turns. We find ourselves back in the times wherein Jefferson felt obliged to intervene against the Barbary states, and in doing so starting an American involvement in the region which has experienced ups and downs. I could not help feeling for a visibly tired American secretary of state who has invested intelligence, creativity and patience in a peace process that made such a hard landing, while nothing can be achieved without the involvement of Washington. President Abbas, too, deserves understanding, stuck in a surreal situation, having no control over Gaza and receiving the unwelcome backing of Iran and its mortal siblings.

The Pax Americana and the outstanding tradition of the ”Arabists” in the State Department are on hold. Meanwhile, the geopolitical outlook in the region is becoming irrational. Syria remains a window of opportunities for Iran as long as the Alawite Rolex clique can hold to power. The cold peace between Israel and Egypt sits in the deep freeze. Iraq, after the surge, can still be, albeit unpredictable, a buffer against Iran. Yemen and Somalia could easily become creepy hangouts for the modern pirates. Ransoms being paid for recuperating hijacked vessels remind us again of President Madison’s words: “The United States while they wish for war with no nation, will buy peace with none.”

The Palestinian issue reminds me of the zoological efforts of bringing two primates together which refuse to mate. All efforts or enticements fail for lack of hormones, sex appeal, or whatever. Left alone, the Palestinians will not even be able to find the exit door. This is not for lack of intelligence but for lack of a common strategy. The same syndrome prevails in all Arab countries and communities which are divided for ancestral or bigoted reasons. Israel for its part sits alone in an ocean of obscurantism and must deal with its own segment of zealots who are hooked to mortar and pseudo-biblical codicils.

The French suggestion which was made is a good one because it creates time (again) to breathe and to arrive at a reasonable arrival point. Netanyahu left the door open. He should at the same time not antagonize the Turks who could play a major role, both positive or negative. The Egyptian behavior might not be to his taste but he had better swallow it. The Americans should continue to be the primary actors even if they wisely keep a lower profile. After all, if they have to resort to the veto-–and hopefully not be alone in this--they will have a lot of explaining to do, being themselves in favor of a two-state solution. Israel and the Palestinians should indeed carry the burden of bilateral talks. The Fatah faction should have the guts to rein in Hamas and its charter.

The US, the Quartet and Tony Blair might be well-advised to convince the Palestinians to give President Sarkozy’s “intermediary” a chance. America is in pre-electoral mood and President Obama is already more tuned to political reality than international necessity. His temperament is closer to the one of Fabius Cunctator wearing down Hannibal rather than confronting him. American movement will be difficult in the short term and the Europeans should fill the void. There is a need for movement even if it looks more like shadow boxing than a reality check.

Israel might have to deal with hybrid uprisings, a new Intifada and the USA might have to confront an increased terrorism, if indeed they feel obliged to let the sword fall. They should not stand alone after having spent so much political and economic capital for so long. The Europeans rebuilt Gaza from scratch (airport, port, financial support) and they, too, deserve more than being mere bystanders. Both Israel and the Palestinians should be wise enough to realize where their real interests and supporters are. It is only normal that the time has come for them to pay back.


Given the circumstances, Belgium is surviving its “longest day” rather well. It has broken the world record of functioning with a caretaker government for more than one year. As usual, the crisis has been ignited by an insignificant argument, opposing the French and Flemish communities against each other. These types of regular roadblocks have serious consequences, in the first place in financial matters and in adjusting norms to the European requirements. The resulting political consultations tend to drag on forever. Sometimes it looks as if one should resort to some form of Dayton agreement to restart the motor of the state.

Above all this incongruous mess there remains the King. In Belgium the head of state is more than just a figurehead. He has influence, if not power. Albert II has proven to be a patient sovereign, close to the people but above the fray. It can be argued that he “carries” the country and can show authority within the existing constitutional boundaries. This explains in part why the markets have remained rather calm and why there has not been any violence of the kind which occurs in other European countries. He can count on the trust of the business world and of a large segment of the population. His entourage is astute while occasionally not in tune with the changing mentalities in the land.

Nevertheless, too much is linked to one single person--as was the case with his brother King Baudouin I--and the succession will (again) be a difficult one. The heir to the throne, Prince Philippe, is a hard-working, well-meaning and ambitious personality but observers wonder if he will have the “savoir faire” of his father to face the Belgian political minefield. He certainly inherited some stubborn characteristics which can be found with many Coburgs (Leopold III and Baudouin I were the most recent examples) and which could get him into trouble with provincial politicians who too often have not come to terms with globalization. The private man is infinitely more approachable than the public representation which often comes over as too scripted. Belgium needs a king to survive as a nation and it has to be hoped that in the future Prince Philippe will be able to count on the same loyalties as his father. Belgium might be small but it is also a hard nut to crack. Internal politics are merciless and the arbitrage of the head of state is a most tricky exercise. The function of the king has been the subject of many studies (see i.a., the book by Andre Molitor about the specific role of the monarch in Belgium, or the commentaries regarding the “colloque singulier” whereby the content of a private conversation with the king is closed to outsiders.) The endless crisis should be a clear indication that this discreet role of the king should be left untouched. He is both guarantor and confidence builder. Obviously, a lot depends on the charisma and character of the individual, who must be a consensus builder. Belgium owes a lot to its two last kings who were paradoxically able to be master of the game without looking like it. The rise of the young political class will certainly complicate this traditional king’s game. Loyalties erode, respect diminishes, former links based on mutual interest and worldview are bypassed by more selfish, parochial considerations. The gap risks being both generational and ideological. An enlightened approach should be considered to reduce the distance between the various pillars of power, enabling younger generations to feel that they have a stake in the workings of the state, rather than becoming more alienated and indifferent.

Prince Philippe and Princess Mathilde are, in theory, ideally suited to be seen as transformational monarchs, on the condition that they accept to rule over what is, rather than over what they wish. Fatally, the next king will see his constitutional role curtailed but this must not necessarily lead to a diminution of his influence, which when played well, is indispensable. The absurd, short-sighted gerrymandering of the country needs to be buffered. If the future king can project a more “British cool” image and be seen as being in tune with the mood of the country he will find himself in a “win/ win” situation. A lot will depend on his choice of collaborators who will have to be close to the political, cultural, economical trends (as King Albert II is) of the moment.

The façade of the Royal Palace will be in need of a major clean-up.


The Belgian newspaper DE STANDAARD commented on the address of the President of the European Council at the General Assembly of the United Nations.

The article would be banal and forgotten if this provincial newspaper had not reduced the function of the President to that of a “Flemish” politician. In doing so, DE STANDAARD shows that it lacks both respect for the President and knowledge of the rules of the United Nations, which only recognize states. If DE STANDAARD chooses to be the laughing stock amongst the international press, so be it.


The suicide last week by a gay teenager, Jamy Rodemeyer, who had been constantly bullied at school is heartbreaking. Tragically he is not alone in not being able to look longer in the eye of the storm. After the unspeakable murder of Matthew Sheppard one might have hoped that the anti-gay epidemic had reached the apex of horror. Unfortunately, this travesty of all that is good and compassionate still continues today and the torment on social networking websites continues unabated. Cyber-harassment rules.

Paradoxically, this was supposed to be a festive time following the end of the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy in the military. It is naïve to imagine that from now on the military barracks will become havens for harmony between straight and gay. The bully always finds a victim, whatever the good intentions of the military establishment might be on the surface. In the US today the tectonic tensions between Right and Progressive often look unstoppable. The social incompatibilities are becoming a tsunami which can destroy everything in its path. The Founding Fathers wouldn’t believe the language spoken today. The real progress which unfolds lately has to pay a disproportionate price to the hordes of Creationists, Libertarians, and right-wing Republicans who run amok. The defenders of Darwin, climate change, and sexual diversity are on the defensive.

Rodemeyer’s suicide is the direct result of a perverse pollution which is undermining the usual civilized, moral and intellectual American discourse. Soon we will have to watch, walk and listen wearing a facemask to avoid being contaminated by the hatred which is lurking. Gay men and women in the army had to deal with a double death syndrome, death in combat and in their soul, which they felt obliged to bury before time. As a diplomat I was obliged to find refuge in a form of Spinozism, while having to overhear the unpleasantness of comments and insinuations which hurt more than I was willing to admit. All this is trivial compared to the many victims who are “shredded” because their chosen path diverges from the main road. Progress has been achieved since Stonewall. It had to be taken away from the claws of the church, obscurantist forces, hostile workplaces and sadly, from unloving families. Dan Savage and Terry Miller started the “It gets better project” against the acid rain of bullying. People of good will are indignant but tears are no match for the granite walls of indifference or blatant bigotry.

Death is indifferent to good timing but Jamy’s lonely act, now in the midst of the general political pollution, might help some to reflect and to still hear for one moment, far away, a Gregorian song amidst the vulgarity of noise.

Sunday, September 18, 2011


Here we go again…the General Assembly of the U.N. will reconvene this week and offer the usual mix of a minority of statesmen and women and a majority of law-abiding member states, of half- baked democracies and of unrepentant dictatorships.

The initiative to ask for full membership by President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority will certainly create a tension which might reverberate worldwide. The Israeli Prime Minister will be a lonely man, at the helm of a lonely country. Egypt is becoming unreliable, while Turkey reviews its priorities and Syria becomes a living hell next door. The odds are ominous. The Arab Spring might well turn into a cold winter. The fault lines in the Middle East make any diplomatic initiative hazardous. I personally hope that a last hour deal might still be achieved but the prospect thereof looks tenuous. If we come to a situation where the sole veto of the United States shields Israel we will find ourselves in the worst case scenario. I wish the EU would abstain but I doubt that the Europeans will have the guts (I hope I will be proven wrong).

What is at stake here is morality more than just politics. We all are in favor of a two-state solution based on security and equality. The two parties share a negative collective memory. Israel will always be a country unlike any other because of the horrendous fate which befell the Jews and which has no equivalent in history. The Palestinians for their part lost everything, in the first place their dignity. Refugees rot in camps in supposedly friendly Arab countries.
Nevertheless, peace remains possible as long as there is a meeting of wills, aspirations and minds. In the end Hamas has to move away from its unacceptable premise. I fully understand that peace, under the present conditions, is quasi-unachievable as long as one segment (Hamas, with the blessing of Iran and Hezbollah…and the list might get larger) of the two parties wants the destruction of the other. If Hamas maintains its current “fatwa” against the Jewish state, it is doomed to remain a rogue entity. The EU should therefore abstain in the Security Council rather than be part of a sham. This is unfortunate for Abbas and his most able Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. It is also a setback for Netanyahu who might not be the ideal partner in peace talks, given his personal history and his political alliance with the right, but who has shown courage if not vision.

A show of force against Israel in the Security Council and in the General Assembly might have dire consequences. I wish the Europeans would not be part of it. They are supporting statehood for the Palestinians and have been first financial contributors. They intend to remain so but they have to beware of playing in the hands of Iran’s minions by acquiescing to good intentions tainted by unwelcome interlopers. The times of teasing between President Sadat and the Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir look almost unreal today. The Quartet is dead on arrival and Tony Blair appears to have become irrelevant when confronted with the amount of hate and bad faith he has to deal with on a daily basis. One should never give up, remain available for what is possible but also keep one’s distance from what might become lethal. In this we have to support both parties, inviting the Israelis to refrain from getting into overdrive (settlements, borders, refugees) and pressing the Palestinians in the West Bank to reject any inconsiderate move or internal realignment as long as Gaza’s landlord sticks with its unpalatable ideology.

Conditions have to fall into place so that a consensual atmosphere might be created, easing the creation of a viable, territorial homogeneous Palestinian state, next to a democratic secure Israel. Israel surely wants as much to return to its roots, being the Silicon Valley of the region, and restart the short-lived MENA process with its neighbors, who deserve as well to show what their soft power can achieve. After all, most Arabs are equally eager to be free from emotional disorder. Their contemporary literature and contribution to modernity give ample proof that religious and secular societies can work and live together. The menace of the mad suicide bomber must come to an end because the perpetrator does not only kill at random, he condemns, through his deed, a great civilization to the gallows. ”The Dream Palace of the Arabs” by the philosopher Fouad Ajami tells it all.

Let us hope that countries will think twice this week, while remaining aware of the Ides of September! This ballot is unlike any other.