Berlin's Palestinian Conference Baby Steps Toward Lasting Peace

Berlin hosted a conference on Tuesday intended to help strenghten the Palestinian police and judiciary. While the many prominent guests seemed to deal with mundane issues, it is these baby steps that are needed to ensure lasting peace.

By in Berlin

Condi was already approaching the podium when Martin Jäger, the spokesperson for the German Foreign Ministry, realized that something was wrong. He rushed ahead, grabbed the European and German flags left behind from the previous day's press conference and was able to create a neutral backdrop for US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and her German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier to speak to the press. It was only Jäger's quick thinking that prevented another embarrassing flag incident only a few days after Germany's leading news program "Tagesthemen" managed to show the German flag with the colors in the wrong order.

Prominent politicians gathered in Berlin on Tuesday for a major donor conference aiming to beef up the Palestinian police and courts.

Prominent politicians gathered in Berlin on Tuesday for a major donor conference aiming to beef up the Palestinian police and courts.

The fact that Jäger, who as Steinmeier's spokesman really has better things to be doing than making sure the right flags appear in press photos, had to jump in at the last second said a lot about the way the Berlin conference was organized. Although the "Berlin Conference in Support of Palestinian Civil Security and the Rule of Law" had been planned for months, on Tuesday the German hosts gave the impression that they were completely surprised that in the end almost all of the high-ranking guests from over 40 states had actually come to Berlin. The aim of the gathering was to strengthen the Palestinian police force and court system. The training of civilian police, the renovation of the ramshackle police stations, the building of a workshop for police vehicles: Not exactly a list of glamorous projects, more a list of the minute details that need to be ironed out in order to achieve lasting peace.

Nevertheless an illustrious group turned up to meet and great each other before the meeting in the Foreign Ministry. Almost every institution and country that has anything to do with the Middle East had sent their top-ranking representatives to Berlin. Javier Solana, the European Union's foreign policy chief, joked with Amr Moussa of the Arab League. Tony Blair, the Middle East Quartet's special envoy, greeted EU Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner with a kiss on the cheek. Israel's Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni joked with the press. "Good to see you," German Chancellor Angela Merkel said to Salam Fayyad, who as Palestinian prime minister should really have been one of the main figures of the day but who seemed a bit lost amid all these prominent politicians.

It was meant to be a working session with concrete results -- and not just another in a long list of Mideast conferences that have been the product of intentions based more on good will than reality. As host and the man who set the tone for the day, Steinmeier set out to do exactly that from the very beginning. Addressing each speaker, the German foreign minister would utter, "My Dear Condi" or "My Dear Tony," it almost sounded like a Boy Scouts meeting where members come up to report on all the good things they have accomplished since the last troop meeting. A few donated armoured cars here, a new professional school there, 20 more European police to provide instruction for their Palestinian colleagues. But the relatively low caliber of the successes they produced stood in stark contrast to the high-ranking speakers who had come to present them. Successes that minor are generally left to the negotiators to announce, not foreign ministers.

'The Palestinians Must Be Able to Feel Freedom'

But the fact that they showed up anyway could also just serve to underscore the fact that the path to peace in the Middle East can only be achieved in small steps, that the Mideast just isn't a place where things can be accomplished in one fell swoop. US President George W. Bush is just the latest in a long line of politicians who have bitten off more then they could chew in trying to solve the problem. The Annapolis process that began last November is supposed to lead to a treaty between Israel and a newly formed Palestinian state as soon as the end of this year.

Despite several promises to the contrary, at the half-way mark Bush still hasn't been able to produce any results. That was the central criticism lodged by Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa. Lots of promises have been made, he says, but there hasn't been much meaningful work towards achieving that goal. It has been the lack of any major interim victories on the path to peace in the wake of Annapolis that incensed a visibly frustrated Salam Fayyad on Tuesday. "The Palestinians must be able to see their future and feel freedom," he said. He again called on Israel to immediately stop the construction of settlements in Palestinian territories and also made a dramatic appeal to the group. "We are running out of money," he warned, obtaining support from Steinmeier. The German foreign minister noted that without money, Palestinian police could not be paid, without police there could be no security in the Palestinian territories and without security in Israel there can be no peace.

There was one piece of advice that will hopefully be taken to heart. According to information from German government circles, the participants really did take Fayyad's request for help to heart and made pledges of up to €156 million ($242.7 million), which surpassed the expected pledges by approximately €30 million. At the same, time, as Norway's Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Store rightly noted, that does not mean that the money will in fact be made available. Just because donor countries make themselves look generous at conferences doesn't mean that they won't come up short when it comes to the making the necessary payments.

In the end, whether the funds are paid or not, the conference in Berlin was a renewed attempt to try to find a new approach in Middle East diplomacy. The steps are very small, but they are nevertheless measurable successes. Chancellor Angela Merkel herself seems to have shared the same thought when she described the conference as a "small mosaic piece in a large construction project." She added that: "When people receive assistance, it has to be concrete."


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