By ELDAD BECK BERLINExtract from an article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
There is a distinct gap between European decision-makers and public opinion on Israel's Gaza operation
"Frenchmen have this obsession with being a president - of a club, a company, a state. Every one of them longs for this title, and those who obtain it keep it till death and beyond. Now it seems that Nicolas Sarkozy is just not ready to let go of the presidency of the EU."
Referring to France's intensive efforts to broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, just as the country is about to hand over the European Union (EU) presidency to the Czech Republic, this sarcastic statement expressed in early January by a Czech official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, reflects growing tensions between Paris and Prague.
Indeed, the European response to the Gaza crisis, which erupted just before the 'changing of the guard' of the EU presidency reveals at least as much about intra-European politics as it does about Europe's international policies.
In their last days at the head of the EU, French officials made no secret of their conviction that the Czechs were not up to the job. In fact, they were convinced that the Czechs' internal political struggles over EU issues would render Prague incapable of assuming the presidency, thus extending France's mandate for an additional six months. And the officials are furious to have been proven wrong.
The Czech Republic is only the second former Soviet Bloc country to hold the position, following Slovenia, which completed its term before France. Furthermore, the country is considered a stronghold of Euroscepticism - the term applied to those who resist giving Brussels too much authority at the expense of national sovereignty. In fact, Czech President Vaclav Klaus refuses even to hoist the EU flag on his official palace.
The Czechs, known for their long historical memory, haven't forgiven the French or the other European countries for abandoning them to the Nazi takeover of the Sudetenland in 1938 and the Russian repression of the "Prague Spring" in 1968. And they are not willing to be humiliated again, warns a Czech official, who also demanded anonymity.
And so the Czechs were understandably enraged as events played out in early January, as French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner imposed himself on the EU ministerial delegation to the Middle East headed by Czech Minister of Foreign Affairs Karel Schwarzenberg, and as President Sarkozy announced a parallel tour in the region, then claimed credit for the Egyptian cease-fire initiative. Sarkozy went on to publish a joint statement with German Chancellor Angela Merkel declaring readiness to guarantee any future security arrangements in the Gaza Strip. Then the enlarged delegation claimed credit for obtaining Israel's agreement to establish a joint liaison office for humanitarian aid in Gaza. But knowing their small size and questionable power, the Czechs, at least at this point, are able to do little more than release anonymous sarcastic comments.
Notwithstanding the Czech-French rivalry, Europe has been unified in its stance on the Gaza crisis. According to Emanuele Ottolenghi, director of the American Jewish Committee's Atlantic Institute in Brussels, overall Europe is giving Israel a message that it has "enough time to complete the operation. European leaders openly put the blame on Hamas, expressing a much more balanced position than in the past. Without any doubt, we are dealing today with leaders who are much more friendly to Israel. And the fact that Europeans have greater difficulties with a radical Islamic organization [Hamas] than they would have with Fatah is another factor."
Ottolenghi continues, "European leaders appreciate the fact that Israel delayed its reaction and started the operation only as a last resort. They understand that a solution must be permanent and not one that would be violated after 3 months by new Kassam rockets fired at Israel's Negev region."
The newest Mideast drama broke as Europeans were enjoying their New Year holiday vacations. And when the officials and bureaucrats returned to their offices in Brussels and throughout Europe, they suddenly realized that they may have created a "Catch-22" situation: a binding agreement would require discussions with Hamas - something the European Union (EU) has rejected. Furthermore, what international force could ensure the cessation of weapons-smuggling into Gaza - and what country would agree to be part of such a force - if Hamas hasn't signed on the dotted line?
Indeed, in contrast to their positions following the Second Lebanon War in 2006, Europeans so far have been highly reluctant to consider sending any peacekeeping forces into the shifting Gaza sands - even though officials acknowledge that such a force is a precondition to any long-term or even intermediate settlement.
" Hamas will stay on the ground after an Israeli withdrawal and they will not accept the stationing of an international force," says an EU official, who accompanied the delegation to the Middle East. As a result of this, EU officials, if they are considering sending forces at all, are primarily thinking about reinforcing control over the border areas. "You can forget about an international force stationed in the Gaza Strip. All the efforts would be concentrated on the Philadelphi corridor," says the official, referring to the problematic route along the border between the Gaza Strip and Egypt that has been used by Hamas to smuggle arms.
"We are weighing possible future interventionâ€¦ It is too early to compare our future contribution to the one offered to Lebanon. In Lebanon, in 2006, there was a sovereign state, an internationally recognized government, Lebanese military forces and a United Nations presence, which we worked to reinforce. In Gaza, for the moment, we have no partner whatsoever. Everything depends on the military and political results of the Israeli operation," the official continued.
"An international force cannot be the solution to the crisis," emphasizes a German official in the Foreign Ministry in Berlin. "It will have to be a mechanism to enforce an agreed-upon solution. There is no use in sending observers or soldiers, who will leave again after some months, when Kassams are fired again on Israel. Moreover, it is extremely important that Hamas is not able to get out of this conflict, claiming to have won a moral or military victory. The PA is heading toward hard times, but the only key to any solution is an internal Palestinian reconciliation."
The Czech Republic is considered one of
Israel's closest friends in the EU. According to Yaacov Levi, Israel's ambassador in Prague, the Czech-Israeli connection is based on the fact that "the Czechs know what it feels like to be a small country surrounded by enemies."
Furthermore, he says, since the Communists supported the Arabs, and the Czechs view everything that the Communists did as a mistake, they are naturally drawn to support for Israel.
The Republic has been among the few countries pushing for an upgrading of relations between Israel and the Union and had planned to organize the first Israel-EU Leaders summit, thus institutionalizing political contacts at the highest level and highlighting the fact that, 50 years ago, Israel was the third country (after the United States and Greece) to send a representation to the "European Economic Community Market," which was the precursor to the EU.
Article in Issue 21, February 2, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Reportclick here.
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