He is what would be considered by many as an unlikely advocate for Israel: a French Socialist. But as a member of the European Parliament, Francois Zimeray has been the driving force behind an unprecedented move to shed light on the possible misuse of European funds by the Palestinian Authority.
Although his efforts to launch a formal investigation stalled because of the opposition of the major European power players, he believes the initiative changed the momentum in the traditionally anti-Israel European Parliament.
“There will be a before and an after,” Zimeray told the Forward over breakfast last week in New York, where he was invited by the World Jewish Congress to meet representatives of major Jewish groups. “I wanted a political awakening on this issue, and I think it is taking place. One can now talk about the corruption and the incitement of the P.A. in the European Parliament without being a heretic.”
As to why he undertook such an unpopular campaign, he said he felt it was just and that Europe should face the fact that some of taxpayers’ money — some $1.4 billion since 1993 — is used to kill, encourage corruption and sow hatred.
Zimeray stressed that he was not opposed to European financing of the P.A. and actually favored a “Marshall Plan” for the Palestinians if the money is used to foster dialogue and coexistence rather than hate speech and terrorism.
The European Parliament has limited powers — compared to the European Commission and the national governments — but the one area where it can weigh in on is the European Union budget.
So several months ago, the 41-year-old lawyer, irked by the refusal of his peers to even consider monitoring the way the P.A. was using the $380 million annually granted by the E.U., initiated a petition asking the European Commission to investigate the handling of the money.
Against all odds and despite pressures from the commission and the main European political parties, Zimeray was able to gather the support of 25% of parliament members earlier this year — enough to formally request the opening of an official investigation.
But the parliament’s conference of the presidents of the major political parties, which sets the body’s agenda, decided earlier this month not to hold a vote on a formal investigation, preferring to launch a less formal inquiry.
Still, Zimeray’s effort was not in vain. Just as the debates over the inquiry were taking place, the E.U. anti-fraud office announced that it was starting its own investigation into the P.A.’s handling of European funds.
“It is a very independent and very aggressive body,” he said of the anti-fraud office, “so it is definitely a good surprise, and it shows some people are starting to open their eyes.”
Zimeray has felt lonely at times, especially in his own party. He was the only Socialist to sign the petition, and some of his colleagues even called for his expulsion from the group. He believes this attitude is symptomatic of a worrying drift of the European left since the beginning of the intifada.
In his work as a parliament member since 1999, Zimeray said he was amazed by what he saw as the representative body’s unfairness toward Israel.
“What struck me is not so much the excess of criticism leveled at Israel but the extraordinary indulgence toward the Arabs, just like if they had an immunity,” he said. “There was a fascination with the icon Arafat, but I think it is starting to change.”
He lamented the poor state of Israeli-European relations, stressing that it was more due to misunderstandings than to antisemitism. But, he added, part of the blame for the fraught relations with Europe should also be shouldered by Israel.
“One gets the feeling that the Israelis are in the arms of the American ally and that they don’t really care about the relation with Europe,” he said. “This is really bad because although America is its main ally, Europe is Israel’s first trade partner.”
The main reason for Zimeray’s trip to the United States was to meet with groups such as the WJC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee and the American Jewish Committee and to become familiar with their activities.
Several months ago, Zimeray was contacted by the European Jewish Congress, an arm of the WJC, to set up a European Jewish lobby — he prefers the word “tool” since lobby has a negative connotation on the other side of the Atlantic — that would strengthen European Jewish communities’ relationships with European institutions.
“Jewish communities are important in Europe, but they don’t have the political influence they should, especially at the level of the European institutions,” he said. “So there is a lack of a European instrument that could also be a bridge in those times of troubled Euro-American relations.”
However, rather than a gathering of Jewish communal leaders, Zimeray would like to bring together a group of high-profile politicians, intellectuals and businessmen — who need not necessarily be Jewish. He said he already won the agreement of former French defense minister Francois Leotard and former Belgian deputy prime minister Willy de Clerq and is in touch with several leading European thinkers and industrialists.
“I want something simple, concrete and reactive to sensitize Europe on Israel and vice versa,” he said.