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That's the way I'm going: Merkel and Bush could drift apart over LebanonImage: Picture-alliance/ dpa

Could Lebanon Crisis Lead to a New Trans-Atlantic Rift?

Jabeen Bhatti
July 21, 2006

The Iraq war caused a diplomatic rift between the US and its allies in 'old Europe' and between European nations themselves that has only recently healed. Will the escalating situation in the Middle East cause another?


On one side, an increasingly-alarmed EU and UN are calling for a ceasefire and peacekeepers to end the devastation being rained down on Lebanon by Israeli bombers since Hezbollah took captive two Israeli soldiers last week.

On the other, a strong stand from the US that militants must be wiped out and Israel must be allowed to defend itself for the good of the region.

As the death toll mounts in Lebanon and hundreds of thousands are displaced from their homes in what is being called a 'humanitarian disaster', many Europeans are becoming increasingly frustrated with the lack of US support for their position amid fears that hostilities in the Middle East will spiral even further out of control. And some believe that while some Europeans are soft-pedaling their dismay, a new rift is growing.

"No one wants to see another situation like the one over Iraq," said one German official who has worked closely with the US. "And it would be counterproductive -- we need (the US) to take the strong lead in diffusing the situation because they are really the only ones that can. But now we are just shaking our heads, thinking, 'oh, no not again, not after all this.'"

A change in tactics

Last week, the picture looked very different: a show of unity and warm friendship over a barbeque attended by German Chancellor Angela Merkel and US President George W. Bush in Stralsund, Germany.

And over the weekend, at the G8 meeting in Russia, as casualties mounted in the Middle East, Europeans managed to pull the US into a tenuous and reluctant unified position when issuing a joint statement: it called for an end to the fighting while reaffirming Israel's right to defend itself.

But Bush made clear the differences in opinion when he focused Israel's efforts to neutralize militants.

"One of the interesting things about this recent flare-up is that it helps clarify the root cause of the instability in the Middle East and Hezbollah's relationship with Syria and Iran, and Syria's relationship with Iran," he said in St. Petersburg. "Therefore, in order to solve this problem, it is really important for the world to address the root cause."

Präsident George W. Bush äußert sich zu dem Konflikt im Nahen Osten
Bush says that root causes of instability must be stamped outImage: AP

It is this view point, a change in tactic from prior US administrations who usually responded to violence in the region with immediate and strong calls for a ceasefire and mediation, that is alarming Europeans.

"The EU can not play on its strength in this situation, which is offering money for development, not stepping into a manifest conflict," said Henning Riecke, a researcher at the German Council on Foreign Relations. "Only the US can do this and they are not willing to this time."

Escalating terrorism

With the notable exception of British Prime Minister Tony Blair, most Europeans are calling for a ceasefire because of the high proportion of civilian deaths and displacement. They are afraid of escalated fighting in Lebanon and that spreading to its neighbors in what could become a regional war.

But they are also worried that the US about-face will lead to more tension between the Islamic and western world and fuel terrorism as Muslims see the US siding with Israel. The US is already in a tenuous place with Muslims, they believe. That it continues to avoid calling for an end to Muslim deaths could be seen as support -- or worse, as a co-conspirator -- for Israel's plans.

But some experts say that Bush's stance is understandable.

"Diplomacy for the past 20 years has not solved any problems in the region either," said Robert Ayers, a security expert at the London-based think tank, Chatham House. "In spite of Israeli efforts to work with their neighbors, they are still subject to attacks."

Verhaftete Lashkar-e-Toiba Mitglieder in Pakistan
Europeans worry that the US stance will incite more extremismImage: AP

"Besides, al Qaeda has already been operating around the world for years," he added. "And, yes they will probably use it as a rallying call but radicals are already active anyway."

The problem with the US view, say Europeans, is its absolute focus on fighting terrorism: since the September 11 attacks, Bush has made it the theme of its presidency. In this conflict, he sees Israel's attempt to destroy Hezbollah as key to eliminating terrorists and bringing stability to the region.

"The divergent views and aims are not compatible," said the German official. "And with no unity, it is going to be impossible to diffuse the situation."

An awkward position

Some experts say that Europe is caught in a tricky situation and will not be able to take the lead in de-escalating the crisis without US .

France, which used to run Lebanon and helped broker peace in the past 10 years that led to the end of the Syrian occupation, is hardly seen as neutral by Israel, nor is Russia with its support for Palestinians in the past.

Merkel zeigt Bush ihr Land
Merkel has been careful in her statements regarding IsraelImage: AP

Germany, as another example, can hardly speak out against Israel even as German officials are appalled at the human toll in Lebanon. Merkel has been careful to pepper her statements of concern for casualties with support for "Israel's right to defend itself."

"The Germans, either fortunately or unfortunately, still have substantial guilt over Israel and what happened to the Jews," Ayers said. "That leaves them in an awkward position."

"And even though the Europeans are calling for a ceasefire, I don't see them offering any constructive solutions or offering to intervene," he added.

Most experts say that they don't believe that differences in opinion will lead to the kind of rift that occurred three years ago because the climate is different.

"There is going to be underlying tension and a lot of behind the scenes diplomatic activity," said the German official. "But Bush learned his lesson and Merkel is not Gerhard Schröder -- and well the French, they are just being French in American eyes."

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