Israel's good relationship with European politicians has not improved its image on the streets of the continent, warned Harry Knei Tal, who heads the Foreign Ministry's Political Research Center.
"My concern is the constant portrayal of Israel as an armed camp trying to stop the march of the Palestinian state," said Knei Tal Wednesday at symposium at Bar-Ilan University's Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. "We have to deal with the negative and deteriorating image of Israel in Europe," he said.
While Israel's relationship with the EU is good, particularly at the economic and political level, Knei Tal said, he was worried about the way parliamentarians use anti-Israel public sentiment to justify critical positions.
"Our side would like to take full advantage of economic opportunities, but we're suspicious of Europe playing a significant role," he said. Increased economic opportunities also gave Europeans a financial lever to use against Israel, he warned.
For a number of European states, the Israeli-Palestinian problem was the prism through which Middle Eastern issues were filtered and analyzed, so that all issues were seen as reflective of it, he said. Many in Europe see what is happening here as a decolonization process, he said. The US, in turn, sees the problem as "two national liberation movements fighting over the same piece of real estate," Knei Tal said.
But the EU's Ambassador to Israel, Ramiro Cibrian-Uzal, took issue with that characterization, explaining that Europe similarly saw the issue as a struggle between two groups for the same tract of land.
"We recognize the right of both people," he said, adding that he was pleased by the improvement in the relations between Israel and Europe. "Israel is an important trading partner," he said. He credited Prime Minister Ariel Sharon with being "one of the fundamental factors" that helped improve the relationship between the EU and Israel.
While the US remained Israel's primary strategic ally, there was room for Europe to be a second partner, he said. Already Europe has expanded its presence by monitoring activity at the Rafah crossing.
"The EU in Rafah is not deployed to solve the problem, only to ensure that the customs and immigration procedures are being implemented," he said. He hoped it could be a model for future EU involvement should a Palestinian airport and seaport be constructed. "The task is limited in scope and objective and has been performed very successfully," he said.
The EU is also open to embarking on future economic projects with Israel, including liberalizing air transport. "We are ready when you are," Cibrian-Uzal told Israel.
With respect to the Palestinians, he said that Europe was concerned about the lack of "law and order" within the Palestinian areas. "We have pressed the issue with [Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud] Abbas and encouraged him to tackle this problem effectively," he said.