Sea of Distrust Watering Down Euro-Mediterranean Ties

By Eric Frey

Published December 02, 2005, issue of December 02, 2005.
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As soon as European monitors took up their positions at the newly opened Rafah checkpoint last month, European Union diplomats started speaking of a new chapter in the difficult relationship between Israel and Europe. Not surprisingly, the honeymoon ended barely after it had begun.

The leak last week of a controversial E.U. report, which heaped heavy criticism on Israeli policies in East Jerusalem, made clear that Israeli and European leaders will continue to disagree on key political issues, and that the deep divide between Israeli and European public opinion is here to stay.

The vast majority of European diplomats, media commentators and foreign-policy experts would agree with the conclusion of the leaked report: that Israeli construction and settlement policies in and around the holy city “are reducing the possibility of reaching a final status agreement on Jerusalem that any Palestinian could accept.” A majority of Israelis, however, cling to the notion of a united Jerusalem; they might be happy to give up most of the West Bank if it gets them closer to peace, but not the Old City or the surrounding neighborhoods.

The E.U. position on Jerusalem only confirms Israelis’ deeply held suspicion that most Europeans have a pro-Palestinian bias. They like to cite a 2003 poll in which nearly 60% of Europeans called Israel the biggest threat to world peace. And they suspect sinister motives behind these positions: cuddling up to the oil-rich Arabs, excessive consideration for the Muslim populations in their own countries or plain old antisemitism. Israelis much prefer the United States, an ally that, as its president has a habit of reminding everyone, never wavers in its support of Israel.

However, there is a strong argument to make that this situation is not in Israel’s best interest. Indeed, for all the current acrimony, Israel and Europe are arguably as primed for rapprochement as they have been in a long time. Aside from the already close economic, cultural and scientific ties, closer political and strategic cooperation is in both Israel and the E.U.’s interest.

Many Israelis fail to realize that Europe needs the Jewish state as an ally. The Middle East is a source of increasing trouble for E.U. countries, including terrorism, illegal immigration and domestic unrest of the sort seen recently in France. In order to combat the problems on its own soil, the E.U. must develop a better regional strategy to contain the troubles at their source. One need only look at this week’s Euro-Mediterranean summit to understand the importance the E.U. places on regional cooperation: Even though Turkey and the Palestinian Authority were the only Middle Eastern governments to send a head of state to the meeting, Europe’s two biggest heavyweights, Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac, sat through two days of negotiations just to get a joint statement condemning terrorism.

In order for its regional policy to have any chance of producing results, the E.U. clearly needs friends, preferably stable and democratic ones. And despite all the misgivings about Israeli policies, there is no other Middle Eastern society that as closely resembles those in Europe as the Jewish state.

Most Israelis, of course, would agree with that proposition. But they are less willing to accept the flip side of the coin: Israel also needs Europe.

It is good to have a friend who will stand by you unconditionally. But it is even better to have friends who don’t shy away from telling you uncomfortable truths — a task from which successive American governments have shied away. Even when Washington has disagreed with official Israeli policies, it hardly ever pressed the point. In American electoral politics, supporting Israel is a winning strategy; criticizing Israel is not.

Some Israelis would argue that the opposite is true in Europe. However, Israeli-Palestinian politics never have played a major role in European elections.

Unlike most Americans, Europeans love underdogs. And for them, Israel has long forfeited the role of David for that of Goliath, giving the Palestinians the more attractive part in the Middle East drama. Following two disastrous wars in the 20th century, Europeans also have developed a deep mistrust of military solutions for what in essence are political problems. Israel’s traditional power-politics approach to national security does not sit well with Europeans’ preference for diplomacy, compromise and interdependence.

These typical European attitudes, of course, are considered naive even by the doves in Israel. And there is no doubt that the European postwar experience of peaceful integration has few lessons for a nation that has been fighting for its physical survival for nearly 60 years. And yet, there is at least one lesson from recent European history that is worth heeding: Peaceful coexistence will come about only if all sides consider the status quo as legitimate — something that is sorely lacking in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The E.U. report on Israel’s policies in Jerusalem does not judge which nation has a stronger moral claim to Jerusalem. Its message is as simple as it is blunt: Israel’s attempts to maintain sovereignty over East Jerusalem and its surroundings will make peace impossible. There is no chance — no chance whatsoever — that either the Palestinians or the rest of the Islamic world would accept a solution to the Middle East conflict that does not include at least a part of Jerusalem as the capital of the Palestinian state.

Harsh words, to be sure — but a true friend tells you the things you don’t want to hear.

Eric Frey is managing editor of the Vienna daily Der Standard.

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