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A Trans-Atlantic Dialogue Seeks Europe’s True Heart

Brussels, the bilingual capital of Belgium, is Old Europe at its architectural best. The center of the old city is the Grand’Place — Grote Markt in Dutch — an exquisite square lined with gold-laced 17th-century buildings, constructed by the guilds that once ran Brussels’ civic life.

One of the most elaborate of these buildings is Le Cygne, “The Swan,” built for the butchers’ guild. The Belgian Workers’ Party was founded there. Karl Marx spent several years in exile there, honing his manuscripts for the international workers’ revolution.

Today, Le Cygne houses one of the city’s poshest restaurants. Recently, I took part in a discussion at Le Cygne about the global economy with several political leaders, each of whom could who lay fair claim to the democratic part of Marx’s legacy.

My interlocutors were leaders of the European Socialist Party — now the second largest grouping in the European Union’s Parliament. During the last few years, it fell from first place as social democratic governments across Europe took a beating at the polls as a result of their stances on domestic issues like immigration and crime.

Social democrats and their influence account for much of what the Bush administration now decries as “the Old Europe.” Their priorities include full employment, open democracy and transparency in governance. Multilateralism, so scorned by America’s ruling Republicans, is sacrosanct to social democrats and their centrist allies, the Christian Democrats. As a leading force in European politics, they fill many of the top posts in what might be called the “new Europe,” including the general secretary of the Council of Europe, Javier Solana of Spain, and the embattled leader of NATO, George Robertson of Great Britain — both of them former ministers in their own countries’ social democratic governments. Hans Blix, the chief U.N. weapons inspector, was a social democratic foreign minister of Sweden.

In America, social democrats are more often found brandishing a pen than wielding political power. A few operate in the trade union movement, and a handful have found their way into Congress over the years. A few small publications, including Dissent and the Forward, provide intellectual succor. But aside from the late author-activist Michael Harrington, no American social democratic leader has had the national spotlight in recent years. The political philosophy that dominates democratic Europe is virtually invisible in this country.

My Brussels dinner plans began a few months back, before trans-Atlantic angst became a matter of life and death. I had been asked to assemble a group of American writers and intellectuals with social-democratic leanings to meet with European socialist leaders for a collegial chat. The venture was supported by two social democratic foundations, Sweden’s Olaf Palme Foundation and Germany’s Ebert Foundation. The Europeans invited us because they worried that a transoceanic rift was emerging among liberals who share a worldview, but increasingly disagree on matters of military intervention and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When we began planning the conference last fall, intervention meant Afghanistan, yet talk quickly shifted to Iraq. But mutual suspicion ran deepest on the Israeli-Palestinian quagmire. The Americans suspected the Europeans had begun to question Israel’s very right to exist. The Europeans feared their American allies, many of us pro-Israel Jewish liberals, were growing soft on Sharon’s and Bush’s foreign policies. As it turned out, we were both wrong.

We agreed to meet off the record, but it can be disclosed that the European attendees included two former prime ministers and several ex-ministers from both “old” and “new” Europe. The Middle East session, in which I presented along with a former prime minister from one of Bush’s least favorite “old” countries, ended up being the session where there was, surprisingly, the most agreement.

Framed by the work of the Socialist International, the coordinating body for parties of the democratic left, in which Israel’s Labor Party and Meretz are both members, our group agreed on common principles that support the peace camp in Israel and the reform efforts of the Palestinians. The Socialist International has long played a significant role in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts, though relationships in the social democratic family have ensured warmer ties between Europe and Yitzhak Rabin’s government than Ariel Sharon’s. Shimon Peres, in government or out, remains a major presence at meetings of the International, though his dalliances with Sharon bewilder and frustrate his socialist comrades.

An entire generation of post-World War II socialist giants — German Chancellor Willy Brandt, Swedish Prime Minister Olaf Palme and French President Francois Mitterand, all now dead — invested vast prestige and effort in trying to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, each in his own way. As an institution, especially under Willy Brandt, who headed it into the 1980s, the Socialist International fought hard to wean the Palestinians from the Soviet orbit. The Oslo process was partly forged by ties between the Israeli and Norwegian social democratic parties. European socialists place a lot of value on negotiating, on what a former prime minister called “the art of listening.” It is this impulse, along with a profound horror of warfare, bred in the ashes of World War II, that for better or worse guides the actions of Europe’s moderate left.

During our Middle East discussion, the former prime minister began his remarks by stating bluntly that one must separate the policies of the Sharon government from the rights of the Israeli people and Israel’s right to exist within secure borders. His comments were echoed by all in attendance.

We questioned whether the Europeans have been too slow to come down on Arafat for his role in terrorist attacks. One American participant put it to them strongly: Had the Europeans stopped Arafat’s money, he would have stopped the attacks. A European parliamentarian responded by saying: “They don’t need our money. They get it from the Saudis, the Arab emirates and rich families.” Whether or not this is entirely true, there is no doubt that precisely because of the perception that the American government — especially this American government — is solidly in the Sharon camp and lacks credibility with the Palestinians, the Europeans provide a counterweight as allies for the Palestinian leadership. That European influence induced Arafat to accept a prime minister this week.

Less noticed is Europe’s direct importance to Israel, not least as a trading partner. Figures from Israel’s Ministry of Industry and Trade show that Israeli exports to the E.U. totaled $7.7 billion in 2001 (31% of Israel’s exports), roughly equal to exports to America, while imports from the E.U. totaled $13.9 billion (41% of Israel’s imports). When we raised concerns over a possible European trade boycott of Israel, ostensibly based on the contention that Israel is breaking its bilateral trade agreements by selling goods made in territories outside the internationally recognized 1967 borders, one parliamentarian said: “Canceling the agreement because of goods from the Israeli territories would hurt Europe.” This same parliament member called the efforts to halt academic cooperation among Israelis and Europeans “total nonsense.” He added: “We must be more outspoken for the reformers in the Palestinian Authority. There must be more democrats against terrorism.”

“Terrorism,” the European added, “would be bad for the future Palestinian state.”

It would be naïve to suggest that all is well in European-Israeli relations. Antisemitic sentiment exists in Europe, including denial of Israel’s right to exist. Some of this is surely the age-old scourge revived, but partly it is a response to Israel’s image as an American surrogate and partly it results from Muslim immigration to Europe. Much, though not all, of the worst anti-Israel venom comes from Muslims living in Europe, and from the extreme left. Similar sentiments are found on the American far left.

Why, then, are the European social democrats so often perceived as anti-Israel? For one thing, the European social democratic leadership undeniably has been and continues to be firmly tied to the peace camp. As such they are attacked as anti-Israel by the Israeli right and its American supporters. Moreover, in pursuit of Israeli-Palestinian peace, they agreed early on to provide money for Palestinian civil society, much of it now destroyed in the course of the intifada.

Over sandwiches and wine at our final session, we toasted our Dutch colleagues. The day before, the Dutch Labor Party had come back from third place after being ousted from government two years ago by an anti-immigrant party. They were expected to form a center-left governing coalition with the Christian Democrats. Had Labor won two more seats in parliament, the new Dutch prime minister would have been the popular mayor of Amsterdam, Job Cohen, a very “new” European who is certainly no antisemite.

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