The Region: Friends again

Relations between Israel and Europe have never been better in the past quarter-century.

barry rubin new 88 (photo credit:)
barry rubin new 88
(photo credit: )
Israel-European relations are at their highest point in a very long time. The strong anti-Israel forces so often - and so loudly - heard in elite and media circles should not drown out that fact. Clearly, the situation is better than at any point since 2000, when the peace process broke down. Although the diplomatic failure and following violence was initiated by the Palestinian and Syrian leaderships, European regimes and elites blamed Israel, resulting in a firestorm of criticism that was often hateful and untruthful. Relations are now probably better than at any time since the early 1980s. With the end of the Palestinian intifada in 2003, Israelis' withdrawal from - and the Hamas takeover of - the Gaza Strip, European experience with radical Islamist terror, and the growing threat from Iran's nuclear drive, the situation has shifted. Today, the governments of the four main European countries - France, Germany, Italy and the United Kingdom - are all quite friendly toward Israel, with the first three being especially so. Particularly noteworthy is the readiness to isolate Hamas politically, helped no doubt by Hamas's own explicit intransigence. Nor has there been a political rapprochement with Hizbullah or Syria. At the same time, European states have participated in raising higher levels of sanctions against Iran and expressed strong opposition to Teheran's nuclear project. Criticism of Israel has declined while pressure is almost non-existent. IN FRANCE, the antagonistic regime of President Jacques Chirac has been replaced by the warmth of President Nicholas Sarkozy. With Germany's Angela Merkel and given the results of the Italian elections, in which Silvio Berlusconi returned to power, the same is true. The transition from Prime Minister Tony Blair to Gordon Brown in Britain has maintained a good relationship. On a political level, then, Europe's relationship with Israel is quite good. The most marked change is with France, where relations are better than at any time since 1967, when President Charles de Gaulle broke off the special relationship with Israel. Given the French president's almost monarchical status, other institutions are following Sarkozy's lead to some extent. Take, for example, IRIS, arguably the single most important international affairs‚ think tank in France and one not known for friendliness toward Israel in the past. It has just published a paper by Samuel Ghiles Meilhac, "La relation entre Israël et l'Union Européenne à l'épreuve de la seconde Intifada," which reports the steady improvement in EU-Israel relations during the past few years. Regarding Italy, Berlusconi and his supporters are explicitly pro-Israel, whereas his predecessors, especially the left-wing foreign minister, seemed on the verge of sympathy with Hamas and Hizbullah at times. For Berlusconi, Israel is not just a marginal issue but a central one, a symbol of the need to fight extremism and terrorism while upholding the importance of democratic societies. Precisely because the anti-Israel cause has been so high on the agenda of the Italian left, Berlusconi and his followers are eager to do battle on that front. And as Merkel's recent visit shows, the German commitment to Israel remains quite high. Economic relations are also growing. For example, 33% of all Israeli exports and 75% of its agricultural exports go to Europe. An agreement just signed with the European Union (EU) on tax benefits and larger quotas for Israel is expected to double that level for processed food and beverages. There are serious ongoing discussions about tightening Israel-EU links. The NATO military alliance, most of whose members are European, is also encouraging higher levels of cooperation. In practice, then, actual Israel-Europe relations are pretty good. OBVIOUSLY, NOT all is positive by a long shot. The reinforced UN force in Lebanon, intended to block Hizbullah's armament and its return in force in the south, and to help the Beirut government, has been largely a failure. Unfair criticism of Israel's self-defense against attacks from Gaza has continued. Governments continue high levels of trade with Iran. Some public opinion polls are horrendous, though not so bad as you might expect. Several smaller countries are very hostile toward Israel, though others in central Europe are quite supportive, based partly on their own experiences under Communist rule. The big problem has been with the intellectual and cultural elites, who persist in their "humanitarian" notion of supporting dictatorships and totalitarian movements because of the latter claim to be helping their people. In all European countries - and especially the UK, France, Norway, Sweden, Belgium and Holland - the view of Israel and Jews has markedly worsened. This problem is not going to go away but does not necessarily reflect the views of the governing elites. There is also a strange ideological mélange on the left in which Third World revolutionaries replace the Western industrial proletariat as the factor that will somehow destroy capitalism and usher in a new utopian age. However this is becoming somewhat harder, though not impossible, to maintain as the dominant force has shifted increasingly to radical Islamists opposing virtually every item on the Western leftist agenda. Those who idolize Fatah might have noticed, for instance, that Hamas threw it out of Gaza and massacred its cadre. ANTI-ISRAEL sentiments are mainly expressed in the media and academia, at times seeming to have a monopoly there. Certain media outlets have outdone themselves in raising false and ridiculous accusations against Israel, though this certainly does not apply everywhere. In proportional terms, Britain seems to be the worst example, though even there only two of the four elite-oriented national newspapers, for example, fall into that category, while the mass-directed ones are generally friendly to Israel. Moreover the very extremism of anti-Israel hysteria - sometimes clearly of an anti-Semitism not seen publicly expressed in those countries for more than a half-century - has also turned off sectors, both in the elite and among the public at large. Since the anti-Israel stand has been intertwined with anti-Americanism, and especially hatred of President George Bush, there might be a further decline when someone else is in the White House next January. Europe-Israel relations in practice, despite all their shortcomings in theory, are one of many bright spots as Israel marks its sixtieth anniversary. The writer is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at IDC Herzliya and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs Journal.