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(photo credit: AP)
Israel and the member-nations of the European Union, it need hardly be pointed out, often have very different interests and policy imperatives. It is entirely unsurprising, and entirely legitimate, for them to view certain unfolding events via different prisms and to draw differing conclusions about how best to grapple with changing realities.
Yet Israel and the EU see themselves as fundamentally allied in innumerable areas, including the global struggles against terrorism and for greater democratization and improved human rights policies. And the EU, along with the US, Russia and the UN, constitutes one of the Quartet members overseeing the quagmired efforts to achieve Israeli-Palestinian peace.
In this context, it is dismaying to recognize the degree to which the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, views some of our realities in this region differently from the way they are perceived not only by most Israelis but by many informed outsiders, too.
Solana, who is currently on a multi-nation tour of the Middle East and visited Israel late last week, gave a brief interview to The Jerusalem Post immediately after a joint press conference with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni on Thursday.
In the course of that interview, he made vague comments to convey the sense that Israel was being heavy-handed, and in some cases counterproductive, in imposing certain security restrictions on the Palestinians. On occasion, he asserted, Israel's understandable emphasis on security produced policies that actually undermined its security. He cited procedures at the Rafah border as a case in point.
Such arguments are far from unprecedented, and are often raised by domestic critics as well as overseas players. Critics at home and abroad, too, have protested the route of the West Bank security barrier, arguing that it should have been built along the pre-1967 "Green Line."
But few self-styled friends of Israel argue, as Solana did, that Israel should not have constructed the barrier at all, and that the hundreds of Israeli lives saved by its construction could have been safeguarded in unspecified "other ways."
On Iran, meanwhile, Solana suggested that the crisis over Teheran's nuclear program had not yet reached the "red zone" and he responded quite mildly to questions about how seriously Israel should take President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's threats to eliminate our country. Again, such stances are far from unique, although the absent sense of urgency and outrage were noteworthy.
Where Solana's thinking seemed most striking, and most problematic, however, was in his comments on the extremist Islamic ideology that holds sway in the Ahmadinejad regime and is followed by Hamas. He was adamant that Hamas could yet recognize Israel, and cited as evidence on which to base such a hope the shifted positions of other hitherto hostile Middle East nations and organizations.
What he was not prepared to countenance was that the perceived Islamist imperative of the likes of Hamas and Ahmadinejad's Iran preclude such a shift. He could not "imagine," he said, that any religion could impel anybody to try and destroy another nation. Anyone invoking their religion to seek such a goal, he said, was abusing it.
Isn't that precisely what Hamas is doing? Isn't that precisely what the 9/11 bombers were doing? Isn't that precisely the problem the free world is facing in the war on terror?
Solana became a little testy when pressed on this. He insisted that the "essence" of Hamas was not the destruction of Israel but the liberation of the Palestinians. And when pushed as to what exactly Hamas might mean by the liberation of the Palestinians, he responded, "We are turning around the same question 20 times. I have not lost my hope that people will change."
Solana, of course, is entitled to his opinion. But it would be unfortunate indeed to be basing EU policy on what appears even to the most optimistic players is the frankly untenable hope of a dramatic reformulation of Hamas and the Islamic extremist mind-set.
Politics is "the art of the possible," in Bismarck's resonant summation. A Middle East view predicated on the hope that Hamas will change is a departure from that formulation that serves nobody's interests.