Diplomacy: Cool European Winds

Europe views Israel like a mother views an elder son, who should be a bit more responsible and better behaved. This was one of the insights of Malta’s FM.

November 1, 2014 07:07
eu flag (european union)

European Union flags. (photo credit: REUTERS)

Maltese Foreign Minister George Vella came to Israel this week for four days of talks, and not many people took notice. Which is natural: Malta is a very small country (population: 450,000) in the southern Mediterranean, with little muscle on the world stage.

Except for one thing: It is a member of the European Union. This means that not only does Malta have a say (albeit a relatively small one) inside the EU, where all foreign policy issues must be made by consensus opinion, but it also means that Vella sits in on the meetings where Israel, the Palestinians and the Middle East are discussed over and over and over again.

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A conversation with Vella, therefore, sheds light on the thinking on Israel at this particular moment inside Brussels’s corridors of power. And the picture revealed by this light is far from encouraging.

What follows are excerpts of an interview with Vella held in his Mamilla Hotel suite on Wednesday, before he met with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and a day after he visited Gaza.

The impression in Israel is that our situation in the EU is bad right now, and that the EU is on the verge of wanting to negotiate redlines with Israel about what is permissible from their point of view in the West Bank.

Let me be honest with you, the EU was shocked by what happened in the last attack on Gaza, which went beyond the acceptable. It was disproportionate.

There are certain things subscribed to by everyone: The right of Israel to protect itself, the condemnation of firing of rockets indiscriminately into Israeli territory. But the disproportionate reaction of [Operation] Protective Edge, with thousands of people killed and injured, was something nobody could explain. Why should one go that far? This is why there is this change of attitude in European countries. Protective Edge took people by surprise, what we saw on television, the reports coming in, the number of people injured, the killing of civilians and children – that shocked a lot of people.

And I can say there was a slight shift in certain countries, which beforehand would not have been at the forefront to condemn Israel.

You talk about the disproportionate responses. How does Europe expect Israel to react when its population centers are being rocketed from population centers inside Gaza?

I know, this is a very difficult question. Yesterday we went to a kibbutz and they showed us where the rockets fell, and a lady came over. She is one of those who lost her husband, even though only three people were killed.

But you can imagine the impact on people’s perception outside the region, when you say that on one side there were only three civilians who died, and on the other side 2,000.

Everybody believes that you have the technology and the capacity to know where ammunition is and dangerous things are, you don’t just fire indiscriminately.

This is the perception we had on the outside.

You think Israel fired indiscriminately into Gaza?

Yesterday we went to Gaza. I cannot imagine what happened to the people who were under that ruble. I was in Gaza in 2009 and went through Rafah at that time, and I saw people living under rubble and tents, but this time it looks much, much, much worse.

I am not trying to be critical, I am being factual.

This is my perception, my humble reaction to what I saw yesterday. I was shocked.

If Hamas can fire into Israeli population centers from their own population centers, and Israel can’t respond, then the Europeans are saying you can fire from an apartment building in Gaza… No, don’t quote me wrong. I am not saying that.

Of course one must react, but the question is whether there was the need to do all the damage. I am a layperson, not a military person, I don’t know.

When you see a block of buildings we were driving past, why was it bombed? Were there Hamas people inside? Ammunition inside? Innocent people are living under harrowing conditions unacceptable in this day and age. They have nowhere to go. They don’t have any roof over their heads, they don’t have any income.

And Israel is responsible for that? Or is Hamas responsible?

I think both are responsible. The situation came to a point where this happened. I am not being judgmental.

I am just looking at the end result. As a doctor I am trained not to blame you for falling, but treating your wounds.

Is it fair only to look at the end results? There is a situation that brought this about

It is a vicious cycle that has been going on and on and on. It has escalated. I would not like to have Hamas on my doorstep, I agree with you 100 percent. My comment is whether there was the need to have such large numbers of casualties.

Israel agreed to a cease-fire a number of times, and Hamas didn’t. Was there a need? It could have stopped two days into it, if Hamas would have stopped. They didn’t.

The whole situation escalated over the years and came to a point where there is nothing but recrimination, that is the way we see it on the outside. Nobody is saying this is the fault of Israel, or the fault of Hamas.

This situation is a pitiful situation, which is why Europe is trying with all ways and means to try to help somehow, to find a breakthrough, to find a way to forget all of this and come to a path that would lead eventually to some kind of stability and the lack of military action.

The fact that the sides have talked for so long and gotten nowhere, what does that tell you? What does it say to the Europeans?

It could be interpreted as a lack of goodwill… We realize that you are faced with rockets coming over Tel Aviv, defiance, these [terror] tunnels. It makes you realize what desperation leads people to do, trying to get out of the area, and inflict damage.

What do the Palestinians need to do now?

First, they need to get their act together. They have to speak with one voice, unite, have good leadership and decide that this is not the way to go.

At the present moment we have heard that there is a [Palestinian] unity government, and that the Palestinian Authority is supposed to take over the management of Gaza. We still have to see the full takeover, the full control by the PA of Gaza. In my opinion that is very, very important if there is going to be some kind of turnaround. But if that doesn’t happen, we will be still stuck in the same situation.

What does Israel need to do?

First of all, stop the settlements.

What does that mean?

Stop compromising the peace talks each time by announcing that further land is taken for future settlements… Each time we come to discussions within the EU, the questions of settlements is always condemned.

Why is it essential to build these settlements? This sends the process back every time. There is a cease-fire [in Gaza]. OK, immediately afterward there is an announcement that land is taken – 4,000 hectares (9,885 acres) declared state land in Gush Etzion. If this is happening just in limited amounts, one would say eventually we will come to an agreement along the lines of the [pre-]1967 borders with some land swaps, but it is happening so much.

But the land you are talking about specifically is in one of the settlement blocs supposed to be in the swaps.

I don’t know. To me the impression is that it is [taking place] all over the place, everywhere.

The way I look at the map, you will be dividing the West Bank into two.

Do you really think the settlements are the issue, that if there were no settlements there would be peace?

No, but at least it would contribute and make it easier to come to some sort of agreement. I think it is a rub that every time puts salt into the wound.

We are not being judgmental, we are just watching and worrying because everyone knows that apart from the instability in the region, [the conflict] is also behind a lot of instability on the outside. We often think about how the world would be different were, for example, one to accept the Arab peace initiative.

You said earlier that the tunnels and rockets are the results of desperation. Really? The argument can be made – one that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes all the time – that it is not desperation, but ideology, the refusal of the Palestinians to accept a Jewish state anywhere in this region.

This is part of it. But on the other side, there are also Jews who believe that the Palestinians have no right to exist. There are extremes on both sides.

The difference is that our extremists are marginalized, while their extremists are controlling half of the PA.

Of course, because they were separated; one of the mistakes of Europe was when they [Hamas] were elected democratically, we did not give them the chance to prove themselves in government.

When I say desperation, if you are a fisherman and cannot go out beyond three miles, or if you are a farmer and cannot go to till your land because there is a wall in between, those things create bad blood.

But the way that construct is set up, Israel is limiting the fishing rights in Gaza and Palestinian ability to get close to the fence and till their land because they want to punish them, not because if they get to the fence some will shoot on soldiers patrolling the border.

This is the spiral I was talking about. Where does it start? The point is where do we go from here?

What is Europe going to do now, there is a certain degree of tension now?

Well, there is a certain degree of criticism. What I feel and think is the real intent of the EU is to somehow nudge Israel into accepting certain advice from the EU, with the intention of arriving at a just solution.

It is not going to ostracize Israel or break relations with Israel, nobody speaks that language in the corridors.

You are not hearing talk of sanctions.

I have not heard about sanctions, no. I have heard about labeling [products from the settlements], I have heard about declarations and conclusions, but definitely not breaking away from Israel. It is unthinkable.

Even if 10 or 15 of the EU countries wanted to do that, the way we work is by consensus, and countries like Germany, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands would never [agree].

This is not the way we think about Israel.

We speak about Israel as a mother speaks about a responsible son whom one thinks should be a little bit more responsible, who expects [more] from him, because he is the elder [son], the most intelligent, to behave better. We possibly expect from Israel more than we expect from the other side, because it is more democratic, because there are more people who can be spoken to, because there is more stability here.

Some would say the Europeans expect more from Israel than they expect from themselves.

I expect more from the elder son than from the younger.

I hear the argument that you expect more from us than you do from yourselves, from the Europeans. You expect a degree of restraint from us that you would not expect of European countries if their cities were bombarded, or for Israel to take risks European countries wouldn’t be willing to take.

I don’t get that feeling; there are no hard feelings against Israel. We criticize what is being done, we discuss what should not be done. But there’s no talk of ostracizing Israel.

You said the EU is trying to nudge Israel, is it trying as well to nudge the Palestinians into compromising on some of its maximalist demands?

Of course, it takes two.

Can you give me an example?

We are saying to them that now that they have a unity government, they need to take over their responsibilities in Gaza, go down there immediately and do what they have to do. We are telling them not to shirk from their responsibilities, because if you do, it will all have been in vain. That is their responsibility. Whether they shoulder it or not at this point in time is up to them, but we are watching.

You mention Germany, the Czech Republic and the Netherlands as nations that will keep the EU from taking certain steps against Israel. There is a perception here that inside the EU, Malta is on the other side, with countries like Ireland and Sweden, and among the more difficult countries for Israel in the EU.

No, it is not true. Our policy is that we are not pro-Israel, not pro-Palestinian, but pro-peace.

Does the current tension between the US and Israel – the insulting language used against Netanyahu – have an impact on Europe? Does the EU think this tension might be good to press Israel to do things it might not be willing to do otherwise?

You don’t get results like that, that is not diplomacy. If you want results, you must persuade people. The essence of diplomacy is persuasion.

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