Europe: a second chance?

the economic difficulties and demographic challenges facing Europe can contribute to creating an understanding that there are no easy solutions.

EU 311 (photo credit: REUTERS)
EU 311
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Looking at the many anti-Israel manifestations, boycott campaigns and demonstrations occurring from time to time across Europe, or hearing criticisms from certain leaders, one can easily come to bleak conclusions. Nevertheless, the picture is much more complex and fortunately is far from being black or white.
One does not have to dig deep to find understanding for Israel’s unique situation. Former British prime minister Tony Blair wrote that, “As I started to spend more time in Palestine, I was surprised to find it is often easier to raise money for the ‘resistance’ than to fund the patient but essential process of Palestinian state-building... if the Palestinian cause gave up violence emphatically and without ambiguity, there would be a peace agreement within the year.”
Most importantly, this quote isn’t taken from a lecture in front of members of a Jewish federation or from an address to the Labor Friends of Israel, but from his autobiography, A Journey. Blair also addressed the centrality of the security issue for Israelis: “I do not believe we will see a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians based simply on a standard political negotiation. Don’t misunderstand me – such a negotiation is necessary; but the real problem is a ‘reality’ problem, not one resolvable merely by negotiation. The Israeli reality is security.”
French President Nicolas Sarkozy met last week with leaders of the Jewish umbrella group CRIF and reportedly claimed that France would only support the idea of a non-member observer state for the Palestinians if they recognize Israel as a Jewish state, return to bilateral negotiations without preconditions, recognize Israel’s security requirements and promise not to submit lawsuits against Israel in international courts.
In his speech at the Herzliya conference in February this year, British defense secretary Liam Fox, who resigned from his post recently, described the defense relationship with Israel as “a relationship that enables our operations and in some cases keeps British troops alive in Afghanistan.”
This statement was of course hugely significant juxtaposed to US General David Petraeus’s Senate testimonial from a year earlier stating that the Arab-Israeli conflict presents “distinct challenges to our ability to advance our interests.”
In January 2009, after Israel declared a unilateral cease-fire in Gaza, six European heads of state and government – Czech prime minister Mirek Topolanek, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, British prime minister Gordon Brown, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero – visited Israel as a display of European unity but also showing support.
Topolanek highlighted Israel’s right to self-defense and showed much understanding for Israeli actions, while Berlusconi declared that “when we heard about the renewal of rocket fire which landed on Israeli homes, we truly felt that this was a danger we all faced, a danger threatening the entire Western world” and “your hardships are our hardships.” These statements were made as European television channels were just wrapping up their extensive coverage, which brought pictures of the destruction in Gaza to every European home evening after evening.
EVEN FROM these few examples we can see that there is the beginning of an understanding in Europe for Israel’s unique security predicament, especially among political leaders. The latest European Council conclusions on the Middle East peace process from May 2011 also acknowledged this by emphasizing both the “legitimate aspirations of Palestinians for statehood, and of Israelis for security.”
Nonetheless, this understanding is detached from territorial implications, and security is seen as something that can be provided for Israel in a different way – either by a peace agreement, by the presence of international forces, or through international commitments.
Israel, neglecting to present what it wanted from the peace process besides the intangible desire for peace, created an asymmetry opposite the concrete Palestinian claim for self-determination within the 1967 lines, the unequivocal position communicated to the Western world by the Palestinian Authority. The Palestinians have never shown any flexibility regarding their demand except for minor land swaps.
Israel, on the other hand, failed to properly counterbalance this, which created an impression according to which the recipe for an agreement is already known, and all that needs to be done is to exert some pressure on the Israeli side.
Regarding the 1967 lines it is interesting to compare the positions of the United States and the European Union.
In his speech on the Middle East in May, US President Barack Obama claimed that “the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps,” while the EU Council Conclusions of December 2009 stated that “The European Union will not recognize any changes to the pre-1967 borders including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties.”
The EU has used this statement as its main terms of reference on the Israeli Palestinian conflict. This EU policy, unlike Obama, doesn’t predetermine the size of the territory of a Palestinian state, though the EU hardened this position in 2011, through its ambassador to the UN.
The changes in political attitudes among the Israeli public during the last couple of decades, the growing instability in Arab countries, and the myriad of challenges facing Europe might provide Israel a second chance to establish symmetry – based on Israel’s vital security requirements – vis-à-vis the Palestinian demands concerning the 1967 lines.
At the time of the signing of the Oslo Agreements, the Israeli public was basically split equally between supporters and opponents, Left and Right. As of today, the Israeli political center has greatly expanded and a wide consensus exists around the two-state solution for two peoples. The security elements of this consensus were outlined by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in his speech at the United States Congress: a demilitarized Palestinian state, long-term Israeli military presence in the Jordan Valley, and the incorporation of places with critical strategic importance.
As a consequence of the convergence of political opinions and the strengthening of the political center, the political differences between the mainstream parties have become minimal. In order to establish symmetry opposite the Palestinian positions, the presentation of Israel’s security concerns by all the mainstream political leaders is essential.
In addition to the Israeli political developments, the growing instability in most Arab countries and the fear from the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and other Islamist elements throughout the region can help destroy one of the most problematic and widespread mantras according to which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the core conflict of the Middle East.
Additionally, the Arab Spring led to widespread interest among European media in Israeli analysts, who are more familiar with regional developments. The economic difficulties and the demographic challenges facing Europe, accompanied by a lack of selfconfidence, can also contribute to creating an understanding that for many problems there are no easy solutions. Building on the existing European understanding of Israel’s security concerns a concentrated effort has to be taken to ascertain the concept with territorial implications in order to establish symmetry with the Palestinian demands.
The writer is project coordinator at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.