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International Affairs  
European Update
Europe and Israel: Image and Reality

Ever since the Bush administration came into office, there have been fears both in Israel and in the Jewish community here that the reluctance of the new administration to maintain Bill Clintonís hands-on involvement in the details of the Middle East conflict, would lead to Europeís filling the vacuum. And Europe, it was felt, did not have the deep commitment to Israel that the U.S. has had ever since the State was created.

Increased American Involvement / Europeans More

As things turn out, two policy trends have emerged that show a more complex picture. To begin with, events have compelled the Bush administration to become more active than it had intended. It named Ambassador William Burns its Middle East representative, and Secretary of State Powell visited the area - a level of involvement that clearly had not been envisaged at the outset.

The other important change is that the most significant European involvement was German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischerís critical role in the wake of the Tel Aviv disco bombing. He had witnessed the suicide bombing from his hotel room, got in touch with Yasir Arafat and pressed him to call for an end to Palestinian violence. 

Out of this meeting came a call in Arabic from Arafat to cease attacks on Israeli civilians, while the Sharon government held off with retaliatory action.

A fragile armistice emerged, punctuated by low-level incidents but avoiding escalation. Other European diplomats, including European Union foreign policy representative Javier Solana of Spain and Swedish Prime Minister Perssons, the current head of the EU Council of Ministers, also were active in pressing for a sustained armistice.

In short, what developed in the wake of the Tel Aviv bombing was a more active involvement of America, and a more even-handed role of the Europeans than had been feared on the Israeli and Jewish side.

Problems for Israel in the Media

On the other hand, the political and psychological atmosphere , and especially the tone in key media, continues to pose problems for Israel. The egregious nature of the Tel Aviv disco attack gave a jolt to politicians, editorial writers and columnists, particularly in Europe, who see Israel as the "militarist", "colonial" power and the Palestinians as its victims. But such jolts donít last long, and in some cases donít even occur. 

Thus, the leading cartoonist of France, Plantu of Le Monde, in the weekend edition of June 2-3, pictured the "plague on both your houses" attitude in the wake of the disco blast by showing both the The Jewish settler and the Palestinian bomber as suicidal.

ADL protested the cartoon to the paperís ombudsman, who had received many similar complaints and devoted a column to the dispute. He reported back that in Plantuís mind, a settler who persists in occupying Palestinian land is just as suicidal in terms of peace or at least coexistence as the Palestinian bomber.

 Plantu himself answered that he gets blame from both sides and is at times referred to as a "Zionist agent". 

ADL  responded: "If you consider Israel the colonial power and Palestinians its victims, this political perspective leads you to a distorted view of the human side: the bomber, causing dozens of dead, becomes no more guilty than someone who occupies a piece of disputed land. This transcends the bounds of reason and justice."

The incident and ensuing correspondence are cited here because they typify the background against which many people, including decision makers, see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict Ė and not only in Europe. People who consider themselves informed and responsible in the western world intuitively hone in on the presumed victim who is entitled to their help and at least sympathy. 

This poses a problem for the "strong" oneóin this case Israel: to be on the receiving end of unfair and often infuriating attitudes and accusations, doing the best possible to deal with them, but realizing that this seems to be part of the price for security and survival.

The Mistake of Seeing "Europe" as a Monolith

Beyond this basic psychological problem there is a misperception in America about Europe that distorts reality and sweeps important distinctions under the rug. It is customary for the media to speak of "Europe" as though this geographic area already had a functioning government and foreign policy analogous to the United States. It doesnít. 

The European Union is a real but still loose group of sovereign nations that have decided to live by democratic principles, and have taken on some significant common economic and financial responsibilities, including a joint currency that will be used in all member countries beginning next January first. 

But for the rest, they remain sovereign countries, and the extent of shared policies in many areas, including defense and foreign affairs, remains under discussion and is far from being decided.

Thus, France shies away from full integration of member nations and prefers a loose federation of sovereign states, while Germany would like to see the Union to develop a "deeper" federation, not identical with but more like the United States. 

Other member countries have different views, depending on their national interests. The point is that to speak of "Europe", in the absence of a specific joint policy as in the case of NATOís in the Balkans, is not realistic.

Diversity in European Views About the Middle East

For example, in the case of the Middle East, France and Germany have divergent policies, even though, for the sake of their common commitment to the Union, neither would admit it.

 German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischerís call on Arafat in the wake of the disco bombing, emphatically and insistently pressing him to speak out for an end to terror, reflects both a personal position and that of a country conscious of its past. 

Only a couple of weeks before that bombing, French Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine had spoken of the Hezbollah in southern Lebanon, as it continues to shell Israeli outposts even after the withdrawal of Israeli forces, as a "legitimate liberation organization."

One could cite other examples to show how some "Mediterranean" countries (e.g. Italy, Spain) with close ties and interests to the Arab world tend to sympathize with the Palestinian case. Sweden likes to display its traditional posture of a kind of "moral neutrality" that always works out for the benefit of the victim as defined by the self-appointed moral arbiter. But no member of the Union has shown the consistent and persistent one-sidedness for the Arab and Palestinian side that France has for many years displayed.

It is thus important for Jews and other friends of Israel to realize

  • that "Europe" is not reality when it comes to the foreign policy of its sovereign nations
  • that the "strong" vs. "weak", "colonialist " vs. "victim" imagery remains the determining background against which important media on both sides of the Atlantic view and report on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  • that some European governments, with France in the lead, reflect this attitude in their policies, but that others, with Germany the largest and most important, do much to understand and sustain Israel .
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