European Parliament President Martin Schulz began an hourlong press briefing over scrambled eggs, lox and coffee with journalists in Jerusalem’s King David Hotel on Wednesday, joking that this would certainly be one of the most difficult meetings of his four-day trip.
Boy, did he get that wrong.
Granted, Schulz fielded questions from foreign correspondents about why the EU does not put more pressure on Israel, or why he hedges in declaring loudly and proudly that settlements are illegal. And he also took questions from Israeli journalists about what the EU was doing to press the Palestinians to be more flexible, or why the Europeans fixate on West Bank settlements but not occupied northern Cyprus or the Western Sahara. But all that was nothing compared to the angry reaction he faced later in the day in the Knesset.
There, tucked into a basically supportive and sympathetic speech about Israel – replete with remorse for the Holocaust, admiration for Israel’s achievements and pledges of allegiance to Israel’s security – Schulz told about a meeting he held with “young people in Ramallah.”
“One of the questions these young people asked me which I found most moving – although I could not check the exact figures – was this: How can it be that an Israeli is allowed to use 70 liters of water per day, but a Palestinian only 17?” And then the floodgates opened. Bayit Yehudi MK Mordechai Yogev shouted at Schulz that “Palestinians are liars,” and “Shame,” and party leader Naftali Bennett led the other Bayit Yehudi members on a demonstrative walk out of the plenum. Bennett later posted the following explanation on his Facebook page: “I will not accept a false moralizing narrative against Israel in our parliament, in our Knesset. Certainly not in German.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – well aware that Schulz is “only” the president of the European Parliament today, but may perhaps become the president of the European Commission tomorrow (he is the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats’ candidate to succeed Jose Manuel Barroso later this year) – was a bit more diplomatic in his response, but still annoyed.
After the German guest left the hall, Netanyahu responded by saying Schulz “admitted that he didn’t check if what he said was true, but he still blamed us.
People accept any attack on Israel without checking it. They plug their ears.”
Netanyahu, Bennett and the other critics, however, were also guilty of some ear-plugging themselves.
Deaf to Schulz’s warm and supportive comments – and there were some very warm passages in his speech, along with some not too spectacular criticism – they were extremely agitated by the water remark, a remark which is part of Palestinian anti-Israeli propaganda that was summarily debunked by the country’s Water Authority.
And this incident, in a nutshell, illustrates the current dysfunctional nature of Israel-EU relations: Schulz was preceded at the Knesset podium some three weeks ago by Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper. Harper, of course, would not have blindly parroted a Palestinian falsehood about Israel.
(Then again, Harper is not running for the presidency of the EU from the party of European Socialists which, according to one senior European source, is made up 50 percent by people who are pro-Palestinian, 50% of people who are anti-Israel, and Schulz.) But even if he had – Canada, like the EU, does view the settlements as illegal – the reaction certainly would not have been as fierce. Though he would have been taken to task, there would also have been a chorus of others singing his praises to the sky.
(Look at the kerfuffle that surrounded US Secretary of State John Kerry’s recent comments about boycotts: First came Kerry’s comment, then the angry reaction, then a seeming competition among Israeli politicians and some US Jewish leaders about who could shower Kerry with more effusive praise.) But Schulz is no Kerry, the EU is not the US, and no degree of warm and empathetic words from a German politician will smooth over words that are critical of Israel – particularly if untrue – uttered by that same politician.
Schulz, in his meeting with the journalists and in an interview with The Jerusalem Post before the Knesset speech, was asked about the Israeli perception of the EU, and especially the European parliament, as being anti-Israel. And, like most other European officials, he dismissed it out of hand, saying the EU is committed to Israel’s security and cooperates with Israel in myriad ways, including close scientific and economic collaboration.
Sure, he said, there are many different voices in Europe – the EU is a very heterogeneous body where there are many different views on Israel and the conflict, just as there are many different views on Israel and the conflict within Israel itself – but to say the EU is against Israel? Rubbish.
“Your parliament is completely divided” on the issue of settlements, he said. “How can you expect that the Europeans have a united approach? And now the EU has a divided opinion, you tell me they are against Israel.”
“I think we must make a distinction between normal disagreements, and being against a country,” Schulz continued. “The Europeans are very seriously defending Israel, perhaps there is from time to time hypocrisy, but this is [natural] human behavior.” Besides he added, hypocrisy is not the exclusive domain of only one party.
And then he gets up in the Knesset and, after saying Israel “embodies the hope cherished by a people of being able to live a life of freedom in a homeland of their own,” repeats the Palestinian propaganda about Israeli crimes.
All his pleasant words are then downed out by those jarring ones, in stark contrast, for instance, to what happened when US President Barack Obama came here in March. In Obama’s keynote speech at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, his critical – sometimes very critical – words were for most Israelis (at least judging by polls taken immediately after his visit) more than compensated for by his pleasant ones.
But in the Israeli mind – indeed in the Jewish mind – the Europeans are not the Americans.
What can be forgiven the Americas or Canadians will not be forgiven the Europeans – there is too much tortured history, too many bad feelings.
Israel – as Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman, prior to his apparent metamorphosis into a moderate, was wont to say on many occasions, and as Netanyahu has taken to articulating in more diplomatic language of late – will not be preached to by the Europeans.
But the Europeans will not be denied their preaching, both because of their historic involvement in the Middle East and especially because of their own history: they look at how they built up the Continent following the devastation of two world wars, how the French and Germans – once bitter, bitter enemies – are now close friends, and say, “Look at us. We did it. Let us help you.”
Or, as Schulz said in his speech, “My grandparents’ generation would have regarded reconciliation with the arch-enemy France as impossible. But the impossible came to pass, through a simple acknowledgment of the fact that if Europe was not to continue tearing itself apart on the battlefield, we Europeans had no choice but to make peace and work together. I believe that if we want to grant people a life in dignity, there is no alternative to peace for the Israelis and Palestinians today.”
Forget that this reconciliation came about only after Nazi Germany was completely destroyed, and the Nazi ideology repudiated by the Germans themselves; if it could happen there and then, Schulz implied, it can happen here and now.
To many Israeli ears, this sounds as naïve as it does patronizing. What sounds equally patronizing is the new line being promoted by the EU: If you make peace with the Palestinians, pretty much along the parameters that the Europeans think should be the guidelines – the pre-1967 lines, with east Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state – then at the end, both you and the Palestinians will be rewarded with an upgraded relationship with the EU.
Well-meaning Europeans, and they are legion, believe that with Israelis accustomed to seeing the European stick – the reflexive condemnations and pressure and talk of boycotts and the labeling of settlement products – it is now time they are also shown the carrot.
That carrot was trotted out at a meeting of European foreign ministers in December, in which they said that should a final peace agreement be reached, then Israel and the new Palestinian state would get a Special Privilege Partnership that would include increased access to European markets, cultural and scientific links, political dialogue and security cooperation.
But rather than acting as an inducement, the way and manner it has been articulated has come across to some as chutzpah: Do what we want you to do, and get a prize; if not, you will get clopped on the head.
Or, as the EU’s new envoy to Israel Lars Faarborg- Andersen said this week in an interview on the Knesset Channel, “The failure of negotiations, particularly if it would be ascribed to continued settlement construction, would not make it possible for EU-Israel relations to achieve their full potential, and carries the risk of Israel becoming increasingly isolated.”
Many Israelis listen to that and do not hear friendly advice – the Kerry incident shows that they don’t take too kindly to that kind of talk, even when it comes from a country deemed very friendly – but rather as a threat.
And if that is the reaction to “friendly advice,” it is no wonder that Schulz’s words, especially since they were not grounded in fact, caused the reaction they did.
Martin Schulz is not the enemy: Ask any Israeli diplomat who knows Europe, and they will tell you that. In fact, at the journalists briefing Wednesday he was hesitant to do what a couple of foreign reporters wanted him to do: declare for the umpteenth time that settlements are illegal. Constantly repeating this, Schulz said, does nothing to promote an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
But that does not matter. He is European, and criticism from Europeans, especially from Germans, is going to make waves. Israel and the EU have a fraught, tense relationship laden with way too much painful history, emotion, and bad feelings. The result of all that heavy baggage was on display for all to see Wednesday in the Knesset.