Europe turns its back

After losing Europe, Israel will scout around for a new family.

Bibi - Merkel  (photo credit: Reuters)
Bibi - Merkel
(photo credit: Reuters)
When outgoing Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman was asked whether he was worried about growing anti-Israel feeling in the Middle East in the wake of the stalled peace process, he replied brusquely, “We are Europeans.”
With these three words, Liberman neatly summed up Israel’s foreign policy during his tenure. Unlike his predecessors who sought to cultivate ties between Israel and its neighbors, Liberman holds that it is futile to invest diplomatic energy in the Middle East, which, as far as Israeli foreign policy is concerned, is an inaccessible black hole.
In his view, Europe is Israel’s home ground. It has the same living standards, democratic values and levels of modernization. Therefore, he decided to make Europe the diplomatic arena in which Israel would operate, even it didn’t quite belong geographically.
Liberman’s new diplomacy bore fruit. Israel’s relations with Western Europe were stable and full of substance. This was evident last November when Western European countries provided Israel with a diplomatic umbrella during Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza. As for Eastern Europe, Israel fared even better. Several Eastern European countries became close friends, refraining almost entirely from criticizing Israel’s Palestinian policy, even though their Western European cousins made critical noises from time to time.
Israel’s Europe-oriented policy held firm until November 29, when half the continent supported the UN move recognizing Palestine as a state and the other half abstained.
Among Israel’s deepest disappointments were Greece and Cyprus, which it had gone out of its way to assist, and, of course, France, the most important European country to vote for Palestine. The only ray of light was the Czech Republic, which bucked the almost universal trend.
The Israeli government saw the European vote as a betrayal; the democratic family was turning its back on the only democracy in the Middle East. Israel retaliated by announcing plans to build across the 1967 lines in East Jerusalem and the controversial area to the east, known as E1. This brought Liberman’s European honeymoon to an abrupt end.
Europe censured the building plans in the harshest terms, signaling that it was losing patience with Israel.
The erosion in relations between Israel and Europe would not have occurred without Washington’s tacit blessing. The Europeans know how to read America’s lips, and the message they got was that it would be OK to admonish Israel.
The tone of the European rebuke also sent a deeper message. It told Israel that, when push comes to shove, Europe does not see it as part of the continent. On the contrary, as far as Europe is concerned, Israel’s place is in the Middle East, alongside an independent Palestinian state. Moreover, in European eyes, Israel’s human rights criteria, as expressed in its continued occupation of the Palestinian people, are totally unacceptable.
Nevertheless, the head-on confrontation with Europe is unlikely to cause major consternation in Jerusalem.
Liberman will not go back to the Middle East. He doesn’t believe in it as a potential pillar of support. Instead, the shapers of Israeli diplomacy will continue to search for a nest in other continents. Geography in their view is no obstacle. The global village is getting smaller all the time. After losing Europe, Israel will scout around for a new family. And, if asked again about Israel’s global orientation, Liberman might point to North America or even the Far East.
At 64, Israel continues to search for a place under the sun outside the Middle East. The question is: What will the Arab world have to say about that, given the fact that, like Liberman, it too continues to claim that Israel does not belong in the region?The writer is a former director general of the Foreign Ministry.