Article on Europe and Israel (3): a complicated relationship

This one, I believe, is the best of the lot.  Hats off to author, Bret Stephens.

From a few years ago, but still relevant.  Raises an interesting issue about the European Left, which loved pre-1967 scrappy, little Israel surrounded by nasty enemies, but now hates an Israel it views as strong and oppressive of the Palestinians, ignoring the surrounding Arabs and Muslims.  Same Israel really, different European view. Some might say that Europeans prefer their Jews weak…  

Europe and Israel: What went wrong?

By BRET STEPHENS In the summer of 2002, I was invited to a briefing at the King David Hotel on the subject of European-Israeli relations. The speaker, an articulate, middle-ranking European Union official from Scandinavia, detailed the strengths of the relationship. On trade, on investment, on tourism, on scientific cooperation, on academic exchanges, ties had never been stronger, he said. The Israeli journalists in the room were taken by surprise. This was the summer of our mutual discontent, when it seemed as if Israel — in European eyes – was an oppressor state, and Europe — in Israeli eyes — was a nest of anti-Semites. Yet what the EU diplomat said was not wrong. In 10 years, the volume of trade between Israel and Europe has tripled. Israeli researchers have access, as associated partners, to Europe‘s $19 billion R&D budget. Israel sells hundreds of millions of dollars of arms – and flowers – to European countries; European firms scoop up Israeli start-ups. Even as Europe was beset by what looked like a wave of anti-Semitic incidents, Israelis were queuing at Tel Aviv embassies to obtain EU passports. Meanwhile, Jewish immigration from Europe has not been impressive. IT IS easy to forget – between solidarity missions by Jose Saramago and Gretta Duisenberg to Ramallah, torchings of Jewish day schools in Paris, and Der Sturmer-like cartoons in the pages of The Independent, El Pais and La Stampa – that relations between Europe and Israel remain more or less normal. We continue to exchange goods and services, visit each other on holiday, cooperate on police matters, participate jointly in regional dialogues, and so on. Yet “normal” is not the only level on which Israelis and Europeans interact: the relationship between us is not like the relationship between, say, China and Europe or Israel and Japan. There are also memories, symbols and expectations, on both sides. And here anger reigns. Under Western eyes What is Israel, today, to Europe? Begin by recalling what Israel was to Europe, once: “plucky little Israel,” “the only democracy in the Middle East,” a workers’ paradise of the kind not found on the other side of the Iron Curtain. The names David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan still inspire reverence among Europeans of a certain age; so too, of course, does the name Yitzhak Rabin for a younger generation. Now the image is different. “That sh-tty little country,” Daniel Bernard, the former French ambassador to the UK, is reported to have said at a private dinner. “The Middle Eastern representative of ugly America,” wrote Polly Toynbee, columnist for Britain‘s Guardian. “The root of evil,” added Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis in a recent public diatribe. These are eye-catching examples. Are they representative? It’s difficult to say. European views about Israel are not monolithic: they vary from country to country and government to government. Not every European has a “view” about Israel; those who do – that is, those who get heard – are a self-selecting group. Among those Europeans who have soured on Israel, much of it has to do with distaste for Ariel Sharon personally, not Israelis or Jews generally. Matters have not been helped by television, the principal medium through which most Europeans “see” Israel. Partly this has to do with the prejudices of European reporters – another self-selecting group – who have chosen to cast the conflict in terms of Israeli occupation while downplaying or ignoring the Arab world’s abiding rejection of Israel‘s right to exist.  

Partly, too, it has to do with the prejudices of European audiences, whose sympathies go out to the apparent underdog, and who cannot understand why Israel – with its F-16s and Merkava tanks – should feel threatened by the prospect of a minuscule and primitive Palestinian state. This last point gets at what one might call the “decent” European attitude. It runs as follows: “You Israelis are a civilized lot, so why do you behave so shabbily toward the Palestinians? You have rebuilt a nation from its ashes. You have drained the swamps and greened the desert. You have proved your prowess in battle; your enemies will never beat you and they know it. But you have over-reached, for reasons that may once have been sensible but are now paranoid and fanatic. You are entitled to defend yourselves, but ‘defense’ does not run to governing other people for decades. Indeed, not only is this unjust to the Palestinians, it is unjust to yourselves. As your friends, we say: Get out of the occupation business now, before you further tarnish everything we used to so admire.” This attitude, however, is not necessarily the dominant one. “Why should we be in danger of World War Three because of these people?” asked Ambassador Bernard, reflecting a segment of opinion that sees Israel, unsentimentally, as a strategic liability for Europe. A recent poll, which found that 59 percent of Europeans believe Israel is the greatest threat to world peace, is of a piece with this. Theodorakis, by contrast, combines sentimental infatuation with the oppressed – “I have always supported the weak, including the Israeli people,” he says – along with a certain conspiratorial-mindedness – “I have also repeatedly condemned the role played by eminent American Jewish politicians and intellectuals in designing the present aggressive so-called ‘policy’ of George W. Bush.” This, too, reflects a persistent European theme about Israel: That the country secretly pulls strings, using the Diaspora as its network of influence, to carry out a nefarious policy. In France, for example, antiglobalization leader Jose Bove speculated that attacks on French synagogues were arranged by the Mossad.

“Who profits from the crime?” he asked on the Canal Plus TV channel. According to the New York-based Anti-Defamation League, Europeans believe by a 2-1 margin that their Jewish fellow citizens are more loyal to Israel than they are to their home country. Then there is the view of the fashionable Left, articulately represented by Toynbee.

Why, she asks, does Europe routinely condemn Israel, the victim of serial terrorist atrocities? Because Israel “remains one of us, ours, our people, partly our creation. The West that sustained and protected it in its fragility for all these years is also morally responsible for its behaviour and must take the blame for its abuses.” Toynbee has an odd sense of history: As the colonial power, Britain did rather more to impede than abet the creation of a Jewish state. But that’s not Toynbee’s Britain, and anyway historical veracity is not the point here. What is the point is the conceit of kinship – the kinship of the Left. “For the Left,” she writes, “Israel was once Jerusalem the Golden, Zionist banners fluttered on peace marches, young idealists worked in socialist kibbutzim, full of all the earnest hopes… Now the Left feels all the more betrayed by Ariel Sharon, war criminal, igniting the intifada by striding into the Al-Aksa mosque and using the trouble he caused to seize power.” For Toynbee, then, Zionism is a dream denied. What began – like socialism — as a glorious experiment in secular idealism, has turned sordid in a muck of politics, militarism, ethnic chauvinism and religious extremism. As the American historian Howard Sacher notes, “the era when Yitzhak Rabin and Golda Meir could address their European counterparts as ‘comrades’ at gatherings of the Socialist International has passed.” What remains for the Left now is atonement for its complicity in this ill-fated enterprise, chiefly by giving full-throated support to the Palestinian cause.

O brother, where art thou?

Most Israelis see the history of Zionism differently. It boils down to this: “Despite our best efforts over 19 centuries in exile, we are plainly not your people. At every turn, you have rejected us, both as assimilated and as observant Jews. Within living memory, you slaughtered us by the millions: Meet our parents and see the tattoos. We fought our War of Independence with guns obtained from Czechoslovakia, another state to which you were not memorably kind. In the 1950s and 1960s, we formed alliances of convenience with France and Britain, mainly on account of their colonial situations in the Arab world. After that, the friendship lost its warmth; evidently, a steady supply of oil matters more to you than your so-called ideals. On the peace process, you offer soft nostrums and make harsh demands. We owe you nothing. You still owe us the full measure of repentance.”

Of course, not every Israeli feels this way: The ideological Left particularly looks to Europe for inspiration and succor. Most Israelis understand the majority of nakedly anti-Semitic acts committed recently in Europe have Muslim perpetrators; that they are a Middle East import, not a homegrown phenomenon. They also understand that the hard-Right in Europe – the skinheads, the Jean-Marie Le Pens – are a fringe phenomenon. But this is not what worries Israelis. Israeli diplomats note with alarm the increasing political clout of rapidly growing Muslim minorities in Europe. They worry about the willingness among elements of Europe‘s political class to pay off those minorities in the coin of anti-Israel rhetoric. They worry about what they see as an over-eager European diplomacy which could vastly complicate Israel‘s regional position, particularly vis-a-vis Iran. And they fear Europe‘s increasing reliance on multilateral institutions, which invariably put Israel in a minority vis-a-vis the Arab states, and on international law, which seems heedless of the uniquely difficult circumstances in which Israel finds itself. Europe‘s peace movement is another concern. It matters to Israelis that an entire generation of Europeans seems to have convinced itself of the legitimacy of Palestinian “resistance” and the illegitimacy of Israeli military action. It matters that a democratically elected Israeli prime minister is placed on a moral par with Adolf Hitler, that Israel is spoken of as an Apartheid state and Zionism as a racist ideology. And it matters that there is so little in the mainstream European media that provides countervailing evidence to these increasingly strident claims. It also matters that European statesmen so often treat Israel‘s strategic concerns as nothing more than a neurosis. To Israeli military planners, Hizbullah are modern-day Visigoths, armed with thousands of medium-range missiles and steeled by a religious fundamentalism that makes them less susceptible to traditional forms of deterrence. So when former French foreign minister Hubert Vedrine spoke of the group as a “legitimate liberation movement,” it didn’t send Jerusalem a reassuring signal. All this is a source of worry – not rage – not least because Israelis expect as much.

More serious is what many Israelis see as Europe‘s betrayal since the collapse of the peace process. The State of Israel may not be quite the child of Europe that Toynbee imagines, but the Oslo Accords were. And part of the promise of Oslo was that, provided Israel made the necessary sacrifices, the West, particularly Europe, would offer the appropriate compensations. “Fix your policies,” Israel was told, “and the road to international respectability is assured.” That’s not what happened. In 1993, Rabin took an ideological leap of faith by agreeing, against his every instinct, to negotiate directly with the PLO. Year after year, Israeli leaders took huge risks in order to move the peace process forward. They did so in the teeth of immense political resistance on the Right, and they did so as evidence mounted that Yasser Arafat had not, in fact, made a strategic decision for peace. In the end, the exigencies of the process took Rabin’s life and ended the premierships of Shimon Peres, Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak. All this came to a head in 1999 and 2000, when Israel, according to former foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami, went “to the outer limits of our ability to compromise.” Under Barak’s leadership, Israel withdrew from its security zone in southern Lebanon, made a good faith offer of the Golan Heights to Syria, and offered to withdraw – according to Palestinian sources – from 92% of the West Bank. In return – by Bill Clinton’s own account – all the Palestinians could say was “no.”

Arafat would not compromise an inch on territory, on the Holy Places and on the refugees, whose presumptive rights were fundamentally incompatible both with the two-state solution and with the survival of a Jewish state. Well before Sharon walked on the Temple Mount, it was depressingly clear to most Israelis that the maximum they could offer was less than the minimum Arafat would accept. It also became clear, in that dead time between the collapse of Camp David and the onset of violence, that the Palestinians were preparing for war. Yet when the violence came, the Europeans turned with unevenhanded fury upon Israel. “This was Europe‘s moment of truth and it failed” said Ben-Ami. “Europe needs to downgrade its moralistic presumptions.” What Europe did instead was upgrade those presumptions. If Barak’s concessions – radical, as far as Israeli public opinion was concerned – were rejected by Arafat, it must mean they were niggardly. Prominent European negotiators such as Terje Larsen were quick to adopt the line that the breakdown of Camp David wasn’t proof of Palestinian intransigence: “It is a terrible myth that Arafat and only Arafat caused this catastrophic failure,” he said. This may have been his sincere view, or it may have been a diplomatic nicety. To the Israeli mind, it was proof that men like Larsen – and the Europe he represents – either didn’t get it or were acting as dishonest brokers.

We didn’t start the fire

One of the ironies of Europe‘s ever-hardening position toward Israel is that it has harmed the peace camp here. In Europe, the Geneva Accord was seen as a valiant effort to break the diplomatic deadlock and shine a light of hope. In Israel, it was seen as a piece of European impudence and cemented architect Yossi Beilin’s political position as a European stooge. Israelis have also abandoned the belief that Europe has anything to offer. Its diplomacy is mistrusted; so is its word. Israelis could accept the fact that Europe “tilted Palestinian,” just as America “tilted Israeli.” That’s the way the world works. But part of the point of “tilting” is that you can maneuver your client into delivering the vital concession. America has done its part with Israel. Other than extracting the occasional kind word from Arafat, Europe has yet to do its part with the Palestinians. More profoundly, heated European scolding – from the media, from peace marchers, from the likes of European Commissioner Chris Patten and Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel – has persuaded Israelis that Europe remains as it ever was; that it sings the sirens’ song. So Israel puts wax in its ears, or it lashes itself to the mast. Surely this is not what Europeans of good will – and such there are, from Tony Blair to Joschka Fischer – intend. Surely a better road can be found. As long as Europe and Israel remain unreconciled, the shame of the West will endure. It’s an ill-omened dawn for another long century.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: