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Why Europe’s Influence on Israel is Limited

December 19, 2012 10:46 am 0 comments

EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton. Photo: wiki commons.

Europeans often express frustration that they are not more involved in seeking to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

Given the geographical proximity and financial support for Palestinian development, Europeans wonder why their political role is so circumscribed.

The answer, I believe, lies in a widespread Israeli belief that Europe too often gives short shrift to Jerusalem’s concerns.

Take, for example, the UN General Assembly vote on November 29th to upgrade the Palestinians to non-member observer state status in the world body.

Despite strenuous objections from Jerusalem (and Washington) that such a move would deal a setback to reviving the peace process, reward the Palestinians for bypassing the negotiating table, and undermine the 1993 Oslo Accords, 14 EU countries, including Spain, opted to support the gambit.

Only the Czech Republic voted against. But if I had to choose just one EU capital to oppose the measure, Prague would have been it.

No other EU country has such a long record of outspoken support for the creation of a Jewish state, dating back almost a century to the legendary President Thomas Masaryk and interrupted only in the communist era.

Moreover, given its own history, the Czech Republic uniquely understands Israel’s vulnerability. After all, in 1938, Britain and France sacrificed then Czechoslovakia in a vain effort to satisfy the Third Reich. Instead, of course, Berlin’s appetite was only whetted, leading to the devastation of the Second World War.

Had the EU abstained as a group on the UN vote, as some member countries wished, it would have sent a more balanced message, but, led by France, that was not to be.

Or consider the EU’s unwillingness to add Hezbollah to its list of terrorist organizations.

Here is an organization that has been implicated in repeated murderous plots, from Latin America to Asia, from Europe to the Middle East. Yet, years have passed since the issue was first raised in Brussels and nothing has happened. Now, we are told, everything hinges on the Bulgarian investigation of the deadly attack in July that killed six people. But why should that become the linchpin, as if there were not already reams of evidence of terrorist involvement, not to mention repeated threats to incinerate Israel?

And in recent days, there have been reports of four EU nations – Denmark, Finland, Ireland, and Portugal – seeking to block an EU statement that included condemnation of the incendiary comments of Khalid Mashaal, the Hamas chief. Here is an excerpt of his remarks earlier this month: “Today is Gaza. Tomorrow will be Ramallah and after that Jerusalem, then Haifa and Jaffa.”

Only the intervention of Germany and, again, the Czech Republic ensured rejection of this hateful rhetoric reiterating Hamas’ oft-stated desire to wipe Israel off the map.

If the EU cannot recognize Hezbollah as a terrorist group, and has difficulty condemning eliminationist remarks by the Hamas leader, how can Israel have confidence in a greater European role?

If the EU truly wants to increase that role, let it first show more sensitivity to Israel’s unenviable security position – in both words and deeds.

After all, in any peace process leading to a two-state agreement, Israel, two-thirds the size of Belgium, would be asked to take unprecedented risks for peace. Europe needs to ask how it can help mitigate those risks. Seeing terrorist groups for what they really are is one way. So is exploring seriously what could be the EU role “the day after” any peace accord, insofar as Israel’s security is concerned.

Recent events in the Arab world underscore once again the dangers of the area. Syria’s deadly violence may be a matter of concern to the EU, to be sure, but Damascus shares a border with Israel. So do Hezbollah-dominated Lebanon and Hamas-dominated Gaza, as do Muslim Brotherhood-ruled Egypt and the increasingly lawless Sinai. Meanwhile, the West Bank is ruled by the Palestinian Authority, which makes an art form of sending mixed signals – one day calling for peace talks, the next day refusing to condemn Hamas-fired missiles at Israel and then seeking reconciliation with the group, whose covenant explicitly calls for Israel’s annihilation.

That is the regrettable reality of Israel’s neighborhood. It is a far cry from Spain’s or Sweden’s.

And the overlay of Jewish history makes it still starker. After all, as a people of memory, the Jews recall that, more than once, those who called for our elimination tried to implement it, whether in the Middle East or Europe.

By showing more sensitivity to Israel’s unique situation, Europe would be doing the right thing – and, no doubt, earning itself a greater role in the political process.

David Harris is executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC). This article was originally published by El País in Spanish.

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