European foreign ministers do not always have a fair understanding of what Israel is up against, and Turkey reacted “a little bit too strongly” to the Gaza flotilla episode, Bulgaria’s Foreign Minister Nikolay Mladenov said this week in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
Mladenov, whose country of some eight million people is among the most supportive of Israel inside the EU, made his comments on Wednesday, shortly before completing a three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. During this visit, Mladenov made extremely friendly public comments about Israel at a time when such comments from foreign ministers around the world are anything but the norm.
For instance, on Tuesday, in a meeting with President Shimon Peres, he said, “We are lucky that the majority of Bulgarian Jews were saved [during the Holocaust] and were able to go on to build Israel. This [history] creates a strong, emotional connection and responsibility on our part to ensure Israel’s safety and its future.”
Asked why he made these comments at a time when Israel was facing increasing international isolation, Mladenov – who became Bulgaria’s foreign minister in January, following a six-month stint as its defense minister – said, “Because I think that is what friends are for, to be with our friends when they are in trouble.”
By “trouble,” Mladenov said he meant that there was currently a “dramatic shift in the entire strategic situation in the region.”
“We’ve seen a statement over the last couple years by Iran that it wants to erase Israel from the face of the earth,” he said. He added that the troubles Israel faced also included a “faltering Middle East peace process” and a situation in the South where the disengagement from the Gaza Strip led to a constant barrage of Kassam rockets on the western Negev.
Israel, he said, needed to “work better” on explaining its position in Europe. “And this is one of the reasons why I came here. I wanted to see on the ground – after the flotilla and everything – the views of the Israeli government, how it sees a way out of this.”
Asked if there was a fair understanding among his colleagues in the EU of what Israel was up against, Mladenov replied, “Not always, no. I’m being quite honest – no. I think sometimes we tend to oversimplify things in Europe, perhaps because war and confrontation and terrorism are not something that is a daily threat to many in Europe.”
Mladenov said that “many countries have lost the sensitivity to the difficult security environment in which Israel lives. We often say that ‘we recognize Israel’s legitimate security concerns,’ but I sometimes wonder if we all know what stands behind these words.”
Mladenov, who in 2006 spent time in Iraq as an adviser to the Iraqi parliament, said he had experience living in this part of the world and had a “fair idea of what it means to see someone blow themselves up in the middle of the street and stuff like that.
“I think we should be a little more sensitive to the fact that this is a very tough environment, and that Israel needs to be alert at every single moment in order to be able to protect its security and the security of its people,” he said.
Mladenov said it was important for people to understand Israel’s security concerns, and what it was like living in a place like Sderot under the Kassam threat, or “what does it mean to live in constant fear that somebody might decide to blow themselves up in the street, or what does it mean to live in the fundamental fear that there is a another country in the world that says it wants to destroy you as a country.”
Having said that, the Bulgarian diplomat added that providing security for one’s own people “doesn’t mean that you can’t or shouldn’t look a little bit beyond the horizon and see what is the framework in which you can resolve this conflict in the longer run,” and that it was important to consider the difficulties facing the Palestinians as well.
Asked to explain what some have described as an east-west split on Israel inside the EU, with Israel’s greatest supporters – the Czech Republic, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria – coming from Central or Eastern Europe, and its greatest critics – Ireland, Sweden, Portugal, Belgium, Greece – coming from Western Europe, Mladenov said one reason was simply that for Central and Eastern European countries that emerged from communism, the relationship with Israel was new.
“This relationship was banned under communism, so there is an interest in developing it,” he said. He also said there was “a bit of a guilt feeling in Central and Eastern Europe, because in many countries, what happened in the Holocaust was not addressed in the way it was addressed in Germany, for example.”
As Turkey’s neighbor to the north, Bulgaria is carefully watching developments inside that country, and Mladenov – asked to explain how Sofia viewed Ankara’s shift under Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan – said he did not think Turkey’s current search for a “new and more active role in the Middle East, Central Asia and the Balkans” had to do with a feeling of being rejected by the EU.
“I think the relationship between Europe and Turkey is very strong, and will continue to be strong, because Turkey is one of the most fundamental partners we have,” he said. “I would like to see more alignment and coordination between what Europe does and what Turkey does in the region, so that we don’t end up going in different directions, but actually are working in the same direction on a number of issues and conflicts that exist.”
Mladenov said that regarding the “whole situation with the flotilla,” Turkey “reacted a little bit too strongly.”
Asked to explain, he replied, “Too strong in the sense that I’m not sure to what extent it serves the interest of the Palestinians.”
The Turks, he was reminded, have said that this helped the Palestinians because now more goods are being allowed into Gaza.
Mladenov replied that the process of changing the “regime on getting goods in and out of Gaza” was something that had been under discussion for “quite some time. I don’t think people should have died for that.”
The Bulgarian foreign minister tiptoed around the question of whether
he felt Israel’s naval blockade on Gaza was legitimate, saying this was
a decision Israel had to make based on its own security. He did say,
however, that it was important to allow the access of goods in and out
of Gaza to develop the economy there, which in turn would create “a
bigger constituency in support of peace, because people will see the
benefits of that peace emerging.”
Mladenov also avoided a direct answer when asked whether Israel had
approached Sofia about conducting IAF exercises over Bulgaria to make
up for Turkey’s refusal now to allow Israeli military planes in its
airspace. He said Bulgaria and Israel have “very good security and
defense cooperation, and that an Israeli-Bulgarian defense cooperation
memorandum was signed earlier this year.”
As to whether that memorandum included an agreement for IAF training in
Bulgaria, he said, “I would imagine that it would include a lot of
Asked whether the investigative committee Israel set up to look into
the flotilla episode was sufficient, Mladenov, echoing the consensus
European position, said it was too early to tell, and that this would
depend on how the committee performed its work.