Malta is about to further cement its role as a key player in the continued efforts to seek the way forward to a long-sought peace in the Middle East with the opening of the European Union-League of Arab States liaison office in Malta next week.
The liaison office falls under the auspices of the Union of the Mediterranean, which focuses on projects related to maritime traffic and pollution, civil protection, higher education and measures favouring small and medium enterprises.
All these issues are closely related to the economic and human development of the Middle East, not least of which is that of the continued suffering of the Palestinian people, and which, if nurtured successfully, will go a long way toward setting a more amiable scene for more fruitful Middle East peace negotiations.
The office is to be manned by experts from both the European Commission and the Arab League, along with a contingent of Maltese experts – with the primary aim of fostering and coordinating real, effective dialogue between the two blocs.
It is sincerely hoped that the liaison office will not become yet another talking shop or ineffective yet well-funded, faceless acronym, but, rather, a vital link to hammer out new links between the regions.
In a recent interview with our sister daily newspaper, recently-appointed US Ambassador Douglas Kmiec also had high hopes of Malta serving as a platform for such inter-regional diplomatic efforts.
He spoke of how he had been assigned by American President Barack Obama, himself the winner of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, to organise interfaith conferences in Malta.
As Prof. Kmiec eruditely explained, “Faith is a necessary part of international diplomacy. So many conflicts are ultimately traceable to faith-based controversies. The US President’s policy for mutual understanding and mutual respect will have a big part to play in resolving conflicts.”
In addition to serving as a crossroads, in so many ways, between the Arab and European regions and peoples, Prof. Kmiec observed, “Certain back channel negotiations can be held in Malta, which is considered as a pivot point of the world’s main religions – Christianity, Judaism and Islam.”
Malta was particularly active last year in its efforts to foster peace in the long-embattled Middle East region, having hosted a United Nations international meeting on the Question of Palestine convened by the Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People in June.
At the conference, Foreign Minister Tonio Borg and former president Prof. Guido de Marco, himself a veteran in Middle Eastern diplomacy and who had given a stirring tribute to Yasser Arafat, were unequivocal in their emphasis that there could be no real peace in the Mediterranean region until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved in finality.
“While peace in the Middle East does not guarantee peace in the rest of the Mediterranean, there can be no peace in the Mediterranean without peace in the Middle East,” Dr Borg had observed when opening the conference.
Later in the conference Prof. de Marco echoed Dr Borg’s assessment by remarking, “We can devise any Euro-Mediterranean process or a Mediterranean Union, and while these initiatives can do many good things, unless this issue is resolved, there can be no peace in the Mediterranean.”
Earlier, in February of last year, Malta hosted an EU-Arab league summit, again on Malta’s initiative, which saw the publication of the so-called Malta Communiqué, in which 49 EU and Arab foreign ministers called on all parties to live up to the Annapolis agreement between Ehud Olmert and Mahmoud Abbas to conclude a peace deal by the end of last year.
That, sadly, did not materialise, but it did serve as another stepping-stone toward the ultimate goal of securing a Middle Eastern peace.
Saudi Arabian foreign minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, who at the meeting floated the idea of establishing a high level working group to thrash out the multiple issues raised in the Malta Communiqué, which was also endorsed by EU external relations commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner, had also publicly thanked former foreign minister Michael Frendo for his “stubbornness” and “persistence” in “forcing” the meeting, which Malta had placed on the table as far back as September 2006.
Then, in July, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas held what were described as fruitful bilateral talks with the Maltese government, much of which was geared toward the ways and means Malta could assist with the development of the Palestinian people.
As recently as the end of last month, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi reiterated Malta’s will to work for a Middle East solution in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly when he called both Israelis and Palestinians to “fully engage in resumed negotiations to this end, resulting in a viable Palestinian state on the basis of the June 1967 borders”.
This, he said, is not a view Malta adopted for the day in question, but rather it was a “vision that has been ours for decades, believing as we do that peace in the Middle East determines peace in the Mediterranean and beyond”.
Reiterating Malta’s shared vision of a two-state solution – in which, he said, both states could live in secure and guaranteed frontiers, recognising each other’s sovereignty and the right to peaceful co-existence – he also highlighted Malta’s geo-strategic location in the Mediterranean as having placed the country in the “privileged yet responsible position of building bridges between the two continents”.
Malta’s vocation is to work for peace and security in the Mediterranean, he told the world’s leaders at the end of last month, occupies an important place of the Maltese government’s foreign policy priorities.
And referring to the liaison office, he said, “It is with a strong sense of political commitment and direction that we bear the responsibility of hosting in Malta the Liaison Office aimed at strengthening cooperation between the European Commission and the League of Arab States, which is due to be opened this coming October.
“Malta believes the Liaison Office will render a major contribution to deepening mutual understanding through practical cooperation between Europe and the Arab world as well as enhancing intercultural dialogue.”
In the grand scheme of things, Malta is a small country with a potentially large role to play in bridging the regions and their religions and cultures, and in the process contributing to what is at the root of much of the angst between the Arab and Western worlds.
It is also a role that the country has, to date, willingly embraced, and which it will continue to mould.