Thousands of policemen were roaming Venice’s alleys and scooting through its waterways in June 1980, as would befit a high-powered conclave with a sense of mission.
The leaders of what then was known as the Common Market soon justified the commotion, making history with their call to recognize the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and to let the PLO take part in peace talks.
Thirty-four years on, circumstances have changed so dramatically that this week the successor of that grouping, the European Union, all but took Israel’s side in the conflict with Hamas. Behind the statement issued this week by the EU’s 28 foreign ministers, lurks a growing concern for Europe’s own political cohesion, diplomatic vision and social faith.
The Venice Declaration was pivotal in two ways: It was the first time the Common Market intervened in a non-European theater, and it openly leaned toward the Palestinian side, so much so that then-prime minister Menachem Begin fumed, accusing Europe of prizing terrorism and reminding it that Europe’s soil was “permeated with Jewish blood.”
Spearheaded by France, the declaration indeed launched an era of hard feelings whereby Israelis felt that Brussels’s attitude toward the Middle East conflict is unfair, naïve and patronizing.
The impression was that France was jealous of the United States’ brokering of the Camp David Accords and wanted to compete with that achievement.
Beyond this quest and frustration lurked the legacy of Charles de Gaulle, who sought a great French-Arab rapprochement at Israel’s expense.
At any rate, Europe has since seldom missed an opportunity to preach the merits of Palestinian statehood and the viability of a deal with the PLO. Historians will likely argue that the Oslo Accords were the European reply to the American-brokered peace with Egypt.
This week’s statement by no means abandons the European-conceived two-state formula that Brussels has been promoting for some two generations, just like the statement expectedly condemns the loss of civilian lives in Gaza and urges the IDF to fight “proportionately,” though it avoids detailing how that should be done.
Still, Europe’s attack on Hamas was worded with a harshness it never previously voiced.
By saying it strongly condemned “the indiscriminate firing of rockets into Israel by Hamas and militant groups in the Gaza Strip, directly harming civilians”; by calling these attacks “criminal and unjustifiable” and accepting Israel’s charge that Hamas has been calling on the population “to provide themselves as human shields”; and by finally asserting that “all terrorist groups in Gaza must disarm” – Europe is speaking in a new way, and it is doing so for reasons that are less about the Middle East and more about Europe.
THE QUEST to unify Europe, which harks back to Napoleon, has transformed over the decades.
What began in the 1950s with six nations’ plan to integrate the economies of former enemies later became a massive exercise in welding nations across an entire continent. By then, this project’s God became multiculturalism, and its anti-Christs became nationalism and clericalism.
Between the end of the Cold War and the launch of its common currency, Europe’s drive to reshape history seemed unstoppable. But then, as the new millennium unfolded both anti-Christs have reared their heads and are casting their shadows over Europe: The nationalist scourge is looming in its Russian backyard, and the Islamist menace is stirring in its Mediterranean underbelly.
This week both predicaments converged as the same ministerial gathering that stormed Hamas debated at length the downing of Malaysian Airlines flight MH17 in Donetsk.
The ministers’ demand that the culprits be brought to justice, and their plea to Russia “to actively use its influence over the illegally armed groups” so a proper investigation is conducted – sounded brave, but it concealed a deep European divide.
The EU’s founding powers, led by Germany and France, are reluctant to confront Russia, while British Prime Minister David Cameron, backed by formerly communist EU members for which Russia constitutes a trauma, charged that the attack was the “direct result of Russia destabilizing a sovereign state, violating its territorial integrity, backing thuggish militias and training and arming them.”
Cameron finally warned: “We sometimes behave as if we need Russia more than Russia needs us.”
Looming above this rhetoric is the prospect of Britain leaving the EU in three years, when Britain is to hold a referendum on its membership, if Cameron is reelected prime minister. Such a departure is still distant, but there is no arguing that European diplomacy is in crisis, as its newer members increasingly challenge its founders, and its many members’ diverse interests fail to align. Cameron, for instance, can talk bravely about Russia because he, unlike German Chancellor Angela Merkel, does not live off of Russian gas.
All this is relevant to Gaza because it underscores the collapse of the diplomatic ambition introduced in Venice, namely to create a powerful European engine that would foster stability worldwide. The place where this engine was to be tested was the Middle East, where a European peace was to position Europe as a peacemaker in a war zone fed by the Soviet-American rivalry.
Gaza’s war, and its support by the average Palestinian, makes a mockery of this vision, as it suggests that Europe’s incessant vows since 1980, that the Palestinian people wants peace and seeks a secular, demilitarized democracy – are unfounded.
Add to this the discomfort of new members like Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic with Europe’s historic treatment of the Middle East conflict, and you get the immediate reason for its militant response toward Hamas’s war. But there are also deeper reasons.
EUROPE HAS BEEN awash with Gaza-related commotion in recent weeks, both peaceful and violent.
In London two weeks ago thousands carrying “Free Palestine” signs showed up in Trafalgar Square where several of them climbed a double-decker bus and waved from there a large Palestinian flag. Demonstrators sprouted in Rome, Paris, Berlin, Vienna, and even Málaga, Spain.
In some places things got out of hand. In the Parisian suburb of Sarcelles a mob last Sunday stormed a synagogue, a kosher butchery and other Jewish-owned shops, injuring some people and shouting “Death to the Jews.”
In Bischofshofen, Austria, (in Salzburg province), soccer team Maccabi Haifa’s players were attacked by 50 rioters in the middle of a friendly match against France’s Lille. Police fended off the hooligans, but the game was discontinued.
Calling the riot outside Paris “intolerable,” French Prime Minister Manuel Valls said “attacking a synagogue or a kosher grocery store is quite simply anti-Semitism, racism.”
It was political-correctness’s way of evading the real issue, which is not ideology but ethnicity.
European leaders know the truth about the Gaza-related upheaval in their streets: It is almost fully organized and attended by Arabs and Turks, who are often driven not by a concern for Palestine, but by designs on a Europe where they want to feel at home without adapting to its ways.
Back when they signed the Venice Declaration, France, Germany and Britain inhabited between them 6.3 million Muslims. Today, according to a recent study by the Pew Research Center, Europe is home to a moderately estimated 38 million Muslims, 5.2 percent of Europe’s population, and this reconfiguration has yet to end. Due to birthrate discrepancies the number of Muslims keeps growing while the number of Christians is shrinking.
Meanwhile, much like the obstacles Europe’s twostate vision has run into since Israel accepted that formula, the multicultural faith with which Europe greeted its immigrants has yet to take root. France’s ban of the veil and Britain’s grappling these days with revelations about schools in Birmingham whose Muslim teachers banned the celebration of Christmas, are but details in a broader picture of social indigestion.
Seventy years after emerging from World War II’s rubble, a shrinking Christian Europe is facing a steadily growing Muslim Europe that will not be melted into its multicultural pot.
At the same time, the EU’s Jews are feeling increasingly insecure and steadily trickling away. Still numbering 1.1 million, West European Jewry is not about to vanish, but it is shrinking even faster than Christian Europe. European leaders are obviously sincere when they say that Europe must retain its Jews. Sadly, from those leaders’ viewpoint, that does not seem to be history’s direction.
Surveying the sprawling map of Islamist trouble-spots in today’s world, from Nigeria and Somalia through Iraq and Iran to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Philippines, powers like America and China see mainly a strategic problem. Europe, on the other hand, sees a social problem, as Islamism threatens not only its diplomatic ambitions, but its political structure and social fabric.
Hamas’s adventurism encapsulates all these European fears, and that is why Europe responded so sharply to the war it has waged on Israel.
Back in that Austrian soccer field, Maccabi Haifa’s Serbian goalie Vladimir Stojkovic was also attacked, and like his Jewish teammates, he fought back, even enthusiastically, apparently fueled by the rioters’ waving of a Turkish flag, which often reminds Serbians of their historic archenemy, and a history of Muslim-Christian discord that harks back more than 500 years.
Serbia is not a member of the EU. In four years, however, it will be.
• www.MiddleIsrael.net Twitter @MiddleIsrael