In transatlantic relations, nothing is potentially more divisive than the issue of Israel's security. From that standpoint, in spite of a rapprochement between France and the United States, culminating in a joint UN resolution, the latest Middle East war is in reality widening and deepening the emotional gap that has existed between Europe and the US since the war in Iraq began.
What is unfolding in front of us can be seen as a real-life version of Luigi Pirandello's play To Each His Own Truth. And, in all fairness, each side has its grains of truth.
For a majority of Americans, now more than ever, Israel is the first line of defense for the West against Iranian-led radical Islam, even if they disagree with the tactical choices made by Ehud Olmert's government. This war, unlike the previous 1982 war in Lebanon, was for Americans not a war of choice but of necessity.
For a majority of Europeans, though they have absolutely no sympathy for radical Muslims, be they Sunni or Shi'ite, Israel's offensive against Hizbullah and its result, the destruction of Lebanon, are seen as self-defeating for Israel and as potentially detonating a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. For, ultimately, a resolution of the conflict between Israel and its neighbors can be only political.
The "falling out of love" between Europe and Israel, so visible in most European reporting about the war, is part of a process rather than the result of a single event. Until the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel's image benefited from living memories of the Holocaust and the silent guilt of an entire generation of Europeans. The transformation of Israel's image in Europe since then is above all a product of time and size, magnified by the power of images in our global age.
WITH THE passing of time and the transformation of Israel from a small pioneer state to a regional superpower, Israel's image became blurred and progressively negative, while sympathy for the Palestinian cause spread, despite Palestinian terrorism.
Israel's settlement policies, opposition to the ever closer alliance between Israel and the US, and integration of the sensitivities of a growing Muslim population all contribute to explaining the evolution of Europe's disenchantment with Israel.
Paradoxically, given the initial Christian origins of anti-Semitism in Europe, the process of "dechristianization" on the Continent has played against Israel. At a time of reconciliation between Christianity and Judaism, a less Christian Europe has been more reluctant to consider the spiritual specificity of Israel. This stands in total contrast with the growing strength of America's Christian revival, with the evangelical right combining support for the Greater Israel of the Bible with a rather classical form of anti-Semitism. After all, Jews are destined to be converted to Christianity before the end time.
Europeans, with some nuances, are now emotionally united in their "coolness" toward Israel. Germany is no longer an exception when it comes to public opinion, and European governments are united in their reluctance to send troops on the ground to separate Israel and Hizbullah.
Nonetheless, political divisions within Europe are reminiscent of those that prevailed at the time of the Iraq war. Of course, Germany under Angela Merkel has adopted a somewhat different stance, owing to the Christian Democratic Party's special relationship with Israel. By contrast, Spain and Italy are more critical and have moved closer to France. Indeed, in the context of the latest Middle East war, there is "more" France and "less" Europe, at least on the visible diplomatic front.
Paradoxically, it is France, which initiated - or at least reinforced - the European Union's deep identity crisis by its resounding "No" to the EU constitution in 2005, that could emerge with more clout from today's Middle East morass. This is easy to explain. As a former mandate power, France had always had a keen interest and presence in Lebanon, and its influence has been deepened by the close personal rapport between President Jacques Chirac and Lebanon former Prime Minister, the late Rashid Hariri.
But will France ultimately deliver i.e. send a significant amount of troops for the UN force set to police the peace in southern Lebanon? By not doing so France would damage her credibility as a "serious country," and her reputation for being a rare breed in Europe, a country that is not shy to intervene militarily with her troops.
Where is the France whose motto once was "I intervene therefore I exist" Europe's other natural interventionist, Great Britain, has its hands more than full in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Germany remains reluctant to intervene in general, and in a conflict that so directly involves Israel in particular, leaving only France to act. The lesson for the EU is clear: if it wants to matter diplomatically, the Union must be able at least to give the impression that it matters militarily.
The EU's current formula, "United we fall, divided I stand," does not augur well for the future of Europe's foreign and security policy. The Middle East was a natural ground for the emergence of a new European presence in the world. Given that Europe's legacies of anti-Semitism and colonialism stand at the origins of the Middle East's core problems, the EU could have been at least part of the solution. Unfortunately, the Middle East, beyond suffering its own tragic fate, has also revealed the extent of Europe's weakness.
The writer, a founder and Senior Advisor at Ifri (French Institute for International Relations), is currently a professor at the College of Europe in Natolin, Warsaw.