Diplomacy: Friends like these

We can distinguish between EU states concerned about the next gov't and those favorable towards Israel.

Solana in gaza 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Solana in gaza 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
Sounding oh-so-very old Europe, European Union foreign policy chief Javier Solana issued the following warning to Israel this week: "Let me say very clearly that the way the European Union will relate to a government that is not committed to a two-state solution will be very, very different." Speaking to reporters in Brussels on Monday, Solana said the EU may reconsider its links, if the incoming government of Prime Minister-designate Binyamin Netanyahu was not committed to establishing a Palestinian state. The bloc "will be ready to do business as usual, normally, with a government in Israel that will continue talking for a two-state solution," said Solana. "If that's not the case, the situation will be different." Not to be outdone, Portugal on Tuesday urged the EU to review ties with Israel if it didn't prove its commitment to the "peace process." "During 2008 we did not witness relevant progress on critical issues like settlements or movement and access," Foreign Minister Luis Amado wrote to his 26 EU colleagues and Solana. "On settlements, for example, we have seen precisely the opposite. This situation can not last longer, as we risk losing the moderate Arab camp. Today, we hope to see a halt of the settlement expansion and a clear commitment to the peace process, or we will need to reassess this question. This needs to be clearly said to our Israeli friends." This type of talk seem a throwback to a different time, about a decade ago, when Israeli-EU ties were often acrimonious and marred by threats. But things began to change in the early part of this decade, as Europe realized that if it wanted to be a player in the region, it would have to jettison what was largely perceived here as a lack of Middle East balance. Israel also realized that it was in its interest not to dismiss Europe out of hand as inherently hostile, but to realize that the EU did have legitimate interests in the region, and could play a productive role - witness EU BAM at Rafah, and the multinational force in southern Lebanon. With this came a degree of maturity in the relationship, and recognition by both sides that there would be policy disagreements, but that the flourishing political, economic and scientific ties could continue despite them. THIS WEEK, however, Solana and Amado's comments were perceived by some in Jerusalem as an indication that the whip was again about to be unsheathed. Except for one thing: Solana and Amado seemed to be operating from a decade-old default setting, when the EU was an exclusive club of 15 Western European countries, some of them - Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Sweden, Belgium and France under Jacques Chirac - with which Israel had, to put in mildly, rocky diplomatic relations. But now the EU is different, much different. It is an EU of 27 countries, 10 from Central and Eastern Europe which have a vastly different historical perspective from the countries of Western Europe. And these countries, according to diplomatic sources, are unlikely to automatically stand up and salute when some inside the EU suggest that it may be time to turn the screws on Israel. "The inclusion of these countries into the EU is super important from our perspective," Pini Avivi, the Foreign Ministry's deputy director-general for Central Europe and Eurasia, said a few weeks ago. The new member states from Eastern and Central Europe are the Czech Republic, Romania, Poland, Hungary, Bulgaria, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Slovakia and Slovenia. According to a senior diplomatic source, these countries form an important bloc inside the EU that, while nowhere near as powerful as Britain, France or Germany in setting overall EU policy, do play a key role inside the bloc when there are disagreements over the Mideast. EU statements on the Mideast are made by consensus, and if there are disagreements by a group of critical countries, such as Spain, Ireland and Greece, against more supportive countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Demark, the Central European countries are able to tip the scales toward a policy that may be more to Israel's liking. Fortuitously for Israel, the Czech Republic currently holds the rotating presidency of the EU, and - according to Israeli officials - during Operation Cast Lead was able to have a moderating influence on some of the statements coming out of Brussels. The overall orientation of the new EU member states, one diplomat said, was much more favorable toward Israel, with the Czech Republic, Romania, Poland and Hungary standing out in this regard. The reasons for this orientation are manifold, and one is historic: The Holocaust happened in those countries, and that has had an important impact on how they view Israel, just as it has had an important impact on Germany's ties with Jerusalem. For instance, Ambassador to Hungary Aliza Bin-Noun said, "There is no doubt that the Holocaust has influenced ties between Israel and Hungary, and also the fact that a large Jewish community remained in Hungary after the war. The history of Hungarian Jews has a place in the overall special and positive relationship between the two countries." And, she pointed out, ties with Hungary are strong. For instance, while hostile anti-Israel protests took place in Spain, Britain and France during the IDF's Gaza operation, there were a couple of small protests in Budapest, but nothing near what was happening elsewhere in Europe. The Hungarian media, too, she said, were nowhere nearly as acerbic as they were in places like Spain, Ireland and Britain. Hungarian Ambassador Zoltan Szentgyorgyi said that the history of the Central and Eastern European countries have given them a different perception through which they gage events. "We have another perspective about security," he said. "The history of Central and Eastern European countries leads to an understanding that security is a decisive issue, and for us security is a very important argument." WHILE SOME in Western Europe view Israel's preoccupation with security issues as a red herring, the new EU states have a better understanding of the legitimacy and reality of those concerns. These countries also, according to Bin-Noun, do not have large Muslim and Middle Eastern populations to take into account and which impact their policies. "There are a number of things that contribute in a positive manner to the ties between Israel and Hungary. The lack of a significant Muslim population is a factor that does not tip the scales in a negative direction," she said. Nor, for that matter, do these countries have as strong and traditional business ties with the Arab world. Indeed, Israelis are heavily invested in many of these countries, with investment in Hungary alone over the last 15 years estimated at some $3 billion. Another factor frequently cited when explaining the overall friendliness of these countries is the very pro-US orientation of most of them. That the US has such a close relationship with Israel is something that impacts on these countries' view of Israel, as well, as does the fact that they have traditionally viewed it as an important bridge in their own relationship with Washington. Arye Mekel, the Foreign Ministry's director-general for cultural and scientific affairs, said that the openness of these countries is reflected in the breadth of cultural exchanges and agreements that exist between them and Israel. The largest Israel cultural events now take place not in Western Europe, but in these countries, he said. Nurit Tinari-Modai, director of the Foreign Ministry's Department for Cultural and Scientific Cooperation, said that countries like Poland and Hungary are eager for Jewish cultural events, seeing it as part of their heritage, because of the large Jewish communities that once flourished there. "We want to remind them of that link," she says, " and they very much want to be reminded of it." The cultural link fosters an overall positive feeling that exits in the new EU countries, she added. That overall positive attitude is something that may turn out to be much more than just a quaint, nostalgic sentiment. It could be a significant factor standing in the way of those inside the EU who might want to push through an overhaul of the bloc's relationship with Israel, if the Netanyahu government does not turn out to their liking.