Israel-EU tension: The view from Europe

Download this story in Microsoft Word format here.

Click photo to download. Caption: Catherine Ashton, High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy of the European Union, meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Netanyahu's office in Jerusalem on October 24, 2012. Credit: Moshe Milner/GPO/FLASH90.

This month some of Israel’s strongest friends in Europe—Britain, France, and Germany—summoned their ambassadors to protest the Jewish state’s construction decisions. As a result, then Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that European governments are willing to abandon Israel in a similar fashion to the way they gave up Czechoslovakia to the Nazis before World War II.

Gabriel Goldberg, director of youth services for the Umbrella Organizations of the Jewish Communities of the North-Rhine Region in Germany, disagrees with Lieberman’s actual comparison, but told JNS.org, “The frustration that lies behind his statement is absolutely understandable.”

At the European Union (EU), officials seem to have had a singular focus of late—and it isn’t their continent’s ongoing economic crisis.

The EU’s 27 foreign ministers first condemned Israel’s construction plans in the E1 area between Jerusalem and Maale Adumim. More recently, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Catherine Ashton called construction plans in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Givat Hamatos and the ultra-Orthodox northern Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo “extremely troubling.” Britain, France, Germany and Portugal—the EU’s four UN Security Council members—asked the Israeli government to rescind its recent construction approvals.

EU criticism of Israel hasn’t been limited to building. On its website, the EU insisted that Israel process its tax transfer to the Palestinians because of “contractual obligations.” But 14 of 27 EU countries—by voting in favor of “Palestine” as a nonmember observer state at the UN—effectively approved the Palestinians’ violation of their contractual obligation under the Oslo Accords to reach a final status agreement with Israel only through direct negotiations.

Not all has been sour in recent Israel-EU relations. In October, when the EU bolstered its economic sanctions against Iran, Lieberman—the same man who made the Holocaust analogy—sent a letter to Ashton thanking her for the EU’s “resolute and important step, worthy of significant appreciation, especially as it has been taken in a difficult economic period [for Europe].” On Dec. 22, those strengthened sanctions officially became EU law.

Yet the EU has defied calls from both the U.S. and Israel to officially designate Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, and has drawn criticism from Israel for underemphasizing Hamas’s calls for the Jewish state’s destruction (a condemnation of Hamas was clause No. 9 of 10 points published by the EU within its succession of condemnations of Israel for E1 construction on Dec. 10).

What do European Jews think of the EU’s heavy focus on Israel? What are the reasons behind that focus, and what are its implications for Israel’s relationships with European nations? JNS.org reports on the Jewish perspective from Germany, Britain and France.

Germany

The 34-year-old Gabriel Goldberg—who, as the son of Soviet dissidents who moved to Israel, has family living in the Jewish state—said that among many in German society, “the common sense is that Israel is the aggressive entity in the world.” He added that it’s “in style to have an opinion about the Middle East conflict without any facts.”

One reason for this, according to Goldberg, involves a projection of German guilt over the Holocaust onto Israeli Jews. Many Germans mistakenly believe that the Israeli Jews are “doing no better than what the Nazis have done” with the Palestinians, Goldberg said.

Stephan J. Kramer, Secretary General of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, does not believe that the EU is anti-Israel, nor is Germany. “We know that Chancellor Angela Merkel has a very positive attitude toward the State of Israel, although she has disagreements with the acting premier Netanyahu,” he told JNS.org in an email.

Kramer, however, is concerned with the danger of European appeasement of the Palestinians. Many EU members “favored or refrained from opposing the Palestinians’ [UN] upgrade because they wanted to convey the message of supporting the general idea of Palestinian statehood,” according to Kramer. Germany abstained from the vote.

Still, Kramer would not go as far as Avigdor Lieberman’s Holocaust analogy when it comes to current relations between Israel and Europe, writing “I would draw too many parallels between 1938 and 2012.” He explained that Israel today has Germany—which is rumored to supply the Jewish state with submarines—as an ally. Israel also has one of the strongest armies in the world, he noted.

“The Czechoslovakian government of 1938 would have loved to be in such a situation,” Kramer wrote.

Another indication that the broader Israel-Europe relationship is positive, according to Kramer, is that Israel participates in Europe’s scientific programs and contributes technology to European companies. “A few years ago, then minister of economy in Germany, Rainer Brüderle, said that using Israeli innovations could raise German economic growth,” he said.

Goldberg said the EU’s top political priority today should not be Israel, but the European economic crisis.

“I don’t think anti-Semitism is rising because of the economic crisis, but it’s buried inside the souls of people and it comes out when they have other problems,” Goldberg said. “[The thinking in Europe is] if you have many problems and you don’t know how to solve them, take the easy way out and condemn Israel.”

Britain

British Jewry in general “tends to avoid talking about” the issue of Israeli construction, according to Sam Westrop, director of the London-based Institute for Middle Eastern Democracy.

“Perhaps this is because they feel it really is a flaw within Israeli policy or perhaps it is because they just don’t know what to think about it,” Westrop told JNS.org. “Whether or not this is a wise course of action, I am not quite sure.”

Westrop believesthat the EU’s “obsession” with Israeli construction results from two factors. Firstly, he noted the “great deal of people who feel they must apportion blame equally in the Arab-Israeli conflict,” people who “despair at Israel’s approach while strongly condemning Hamas rocket fire.”Secondly, Westrop cited individuals who “genuinely believe” Israeli construction “prevents peace.”

“We just have to look at Abu Mazen’s rejection of Israel’s peace gestures following the offer of a settlement freeze (for 10 months starting in November 2009) to realize that this just is not true,” he wrote in an email.

But Dr. Toby Greene, head of research at the Britain Israel Communications & Research Centre (BICOM), wrote in an email to JNS.org that it is “reasonable for the EU to press both sides not to take unilateral actions that prejudge the outcome of negotiations, meaning the Palestinians should refrain from trying to impose their version of a solution through UN resolutions, and Israel should refrain from trying to impose theirs via building in new areas of the territory under dispute.”

The 14 EU countries voting in favor of upgraded Palestinian UN status indicates to Westrop a decline in support for Israel among EU members that resulted from “the efficacy of the anti-Israel network in Europe.”

“The groups that comprise this network have always pursued both ground-up and top-down policy,” Westrop wrote. “In other words, they work both at the grassroots level and in national and European politics. Anti-Israel sentiment is legitimized by groups that can claim both the support of leading politicians and the thousands of grassroots activists at their command.”

Westrop criticized Ashton—the EU’s foreign policy chief—for “condemning plans for Israel to build Givat Hamatos, which she wrongly claims would cut the geographic continuity between Jerusalem and Bethlehem,” while at the same time ignoring “plans to build better housing for Arabs in Beit Safafa.”

Until “EU money stops funding anti-Israel and pro-terror propaganda groups, people like Ashton should not be dictating to others at all,” Westrop added.

Greene, however, noted that the EU “has also been consistently calling for the Palestinians to get back to the table without preconditions.”

“It is important to note that Britain demanded a Palestinian commitment to re-enter negotiations without preconditions as a condition for voting yes and the Palestinians refused to provide it,” Greene wrote.

Furthermore, when condemning Israel’s construction plans in E1 on Dec. 10, the EU also said it “finds inflammatory statements by Hamas leaders that deny Israel’s right to exist unacceptable.”

France

While Germany and Britain abstained from the UN vote on the Palestinians’ upgraded status, France voted in favor of the upgrade and staunchly supported it publicly.

At a time when France has a number of other domestic and international issues already on its plate, some might attribute its tough line on Israel to newly elected Socialist president François Hollande.

Writing in Haaretz just before the French presidential election in April 2012, Richard Prasquier, president of the representative Council of French Jewish Institutions (CRIF), was highly skeptical of Hollande’s left-wing coalition.

“The main question that arises for the Jewish community, if François Hollande becomes the president of France, is the influence that might be exerted by those Socialist leaders who have negative views towards Israel’s policies,” he wrote.

Hollande enjoys the support of the majority of French people on the issue of Palestinian statehood.

“Public opinion has been quite supportive [of the Palestinian UN vote],” Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, director of the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) Paris office, told JNS.org.

France, which has Europe’s largest Jewish community, has also garnered significant attention over the past year for a rise in anti-Semitism, especially after last March’s Islamist terrorist attack on a Jewish school in Toulouse that left a rabbi and three children dead.

But despite the growing tensions between France and Israel, the recent spurt of anti-Semitism appears unrelated, according to Rodan-Benzaquen. Instead, many attribute the rise of French anti-Semitism directly to the growing radical Islamic presence in the country, which has Europe’s largest Muslim population.

“What is worrying now, since the murders in Toulouse, [is that] there has been an increase in anti-Semitic attacks unrelated to the Middle East events,” Rodan-Benzaquen said.

Posted on December 24, 2012 and filed under Conflict, Israel, News, World.