Europe gets more 'awkward' on Israel

Led by france, foreign ministers are taking a more assertively pro-Arab line

By ROBIN SHEPHERD
July 24, 2007 21:25

 
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A month since the European Union signed a landmark treaty including moves to better coordinate foreign policy, there are signs that a high-level new caucus may be emerging inside the 27-member bloc with some worrying attitudes toward Israel. Led by France, foreign ministers from 10 mainly Mediterranean countries declared themselves to the world earlier in July with an open letter to new Middle East Envoy Tony Blair offering advice on how he should proceed with his duties. When more than a third of the EU's member states issue a joint call for action on a major issue in international affairs, the content of their message provides important evidence of the way official thinking is going. The worry has always been that the blatant lack of empathy with Israel among so many in the continent's opinion-forming classes would eventually make inroads in the sphere of high politics. It seems that may now be happening. Baldly declaring the road map dead, the letter makes four key recommendations. The first calls for negotiations on final status "without pre-requisites." The second claims to "take account of Israel's need for security" by proposing a "robust international force" to keep order in the territories and police a cease-fire. The third calls on Israel to help PA President Mahmoud Abbas by transferring tax revenues and releasing prisoners "without blood on their hands." It also issues a firm demand that Israel freeze settlements and remove "wildcat outposts." The fourth recommendation opens by cautioning Blair against any actions that might cause Hamas to "up the stakes" and calls on Israel to relax restrictions on Gaza's borders. Finally, the ministers call for an international conference "that includes all the parties in conflict" - a clear invitation to Hamas. THE FIRST thing that stares out of the page is what has been left out. At least five immediate demands are made on Israel; none whatsoever on the Palestinians. It is hard to imagine any other conflict where such a one sided approach would be taken. But it is what is actually in the letter that gives the greatest cause for concern. In the first set of recommendations one's eye is immediately drawn to the words "without pre-requisites." No pre-requisites? Not even the pre-requisite that the people one sits down to negotiate with at the suggested international conference accept the other party's right to exist? Would France and the other signatories accept invitations to negotiate with a group that said they had no right to exist? Would they not, reasonably, insist that there is always a core pre-requisite to any legitimate form of negotiation and that that pre-requisite must be existential equality? If so, what of Hamas, which makes a fetish of brute anti-Semitism and is committed to Israel's destruction? That last point feeds into a broader shift in the terms of debate in Europe, where relegation of the core, existential question in the Israel-Palestine conflict has proceeded in tandem with an increasing tendency to sanitize and therefore distort the true nature of Hamas - a process that began with Hamas's election victory and most recently surfaced over its role in freeing BBC reporter Alan Johnston. SIGNS OF this shift have come from some depressingly unexpected quarters. In a speech to the Middle East Institute in Washington this April, Michael Ancram, a senior member of the British Conservative Party's Friends of Israel grouping and a former Northern Ireland minister, described Western ostracism of Hamas as "myopic," arguing that it would be impossible for a credible agreement to be worked out unless it were party to the agreement. Ancram went on to raise the existential question merely to dispute its importance, saying Hamas does in fact give de-facto recognition to Israel but if it were to offer de-jure recognition publicly "it would lose all credibility with its own supporters. The IRA [Irish Republican Army] would have had the same problem." It is an extraordinary confusion on two counts, but it is a confusion that is starting to become routine. Firstly, of course, the IRA only wanted British troops out of Northern Ireland. It never in its wildest dreams wanted the destruction of Britain altogether. Worse, Ancram simply brushes over the essence of the entire problem in this conflict: Palestinian political culture has been programmed through decades of propaganda to despise Israel and yearn for its destruction. Far from being satisfied by nods and winks about possible acceptance of Israel at some far-off date in the future, it is vital that Western leaders push Hamas, and for that matter Fatah, to start reprogramming Palestinian political culture so that if a peace agreement comes, the Palestinian people are properly prepared for it. To do otherwise risks seeing a deal flounder when some new political grouping, or indeed Hamas itself, finds itself drawn to old form by the magnetic pull of a public rejectionism that has been left largely intact. GIVEN THE scale of the problem on that issue, it almost seems trivial to point up some of the other distortions now being peddled around. In calling for Israel to relax Gaza's borders, for instance, the foreign ministers' letter effectively echoes the same underlying point European television news implicitly makes every night of the week: that Israeli restrictions on movement to and from Gaza are all about collective punishment and have little to do with security - an issue increasingly talked about as though it were a mere excuse. Or as Belgian Member of the European Parliament Veronique De Keyser put it in May, when the Israeli ambassador talks about security, "I feel like I want to strangle him." Europe's relationship with Israel has always been an awkward one. But despite some bad patches - the Lebanon crisis in 2006 being a prime example - the fact is that European governments have, over the years, held the line in support of Israel and in recognizing the nature of the threats it faces. The danger now is that that line is beginning to be breached. The writer is the senior fellow for Europe at Chatham House in London. He is working on a book looking at European attitudes to Israel.

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