Europe courts Iran, shuns Israel

By Ben Cohen/JNS.org

Click photo to download. Caption: European Union (EU) flags in front of the European Commission building in Brussels. Credit: Amio Cajander via Wikimedia Commons.

Nobody does double standards quite like the Europeans. And if recent developments are anything to go by, they will remain the market leader in this field of human endeavor for quite some time. 

Where the Middle East is concerned, there are two complementary messages coming out of the European Union at the moment. The first proclaims that Israel is a legitimate target for boycotts and divestment for as long as the “occupation” continues—and here, “occupation” principally refers to the West Bank and the eastern half of Jerusalem, feebly eliding the fact that the Palestinian leadership, through its insistence on the so-called “right of return,” regards the entire territory between the Mediterranean and the Jordan as “occupied.” As for the second message, that can be neatly summarized in a potential advertising slogan: Iran is open for business! 

According to the Washington Post, Europeans are banking on a business “bonanza” with Iran, now that sanctions have been relaxed in accordance with the Iran nuclear program deal reached last November in Geneva. Both Iran’s president, Hassan Rouhani, and its Foreign Minister, Javad Zarif, rubbed shoulders with the global business and political elite at the World Economic Forum’s annual powwow in Davos. Leading French companies, among them Societe Generale, BNP Paribas and Airbus, are said to be sending executives to Tehran by the planeload. French car manufacturers like Renault and Peugeot are drooling at the thought of recovering their former, dominant positions in the Iranian automobile market. European carriers like Lufthansa and Austrian Airlines are increasing the number of weekly flights to Tehran in anticipation of growing demand. The Dutch Ambassador in Tehran, Jos Douma, even held what he ludicrously termed a “speed-date session” for companies wanting in on the Iranian gold rush. 

You won’t, however, find a similar openness towards Israel within the EU. As the Financial Times reported, the enormous Dutch ABP pension fund, as well as two Scandinavian funds, are reviewing their investments in Israel over—as the Financial Times exquisitely phrased it—“concerns that the banks finance illegal Israeli settlements in Palestinian-occupied territories.” This follows the decision by PGGM, another Dutch pension fund, to divest its holdings in five Israeli banks, citing their “involvement in the financing of settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories.” 

In a statement explaining its decision, PGGM asserted that its dialogue with these banks about the settlements issue had not yielded any results, and therefore “it was concluded that engagement as a tool to bring about change will not be effective in this case.” For PGGM, engagement is futile in the case of a democracy like Israel, but it’s apparently effective in the case of communist China. As the Dutch Jewish weekly newspaper, NIW, revealed, PGGM continues to invest in Chinese banks and companies with operations in Tibet—a nation that really knows what it’s like to live under a brutal occupation. But when Maurice Willbrink, a spokesman for PGGM, was pressed by NIW about the fund’s links with the Chinese regime, he demurred, explaining the importance of avoiding “prejudicing the ongoing dialogue.”

How should we assess these latest moves in European countries? The EU has not, of course, joined the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement—such a decision would at least take guts, a quality that most European politicians don’t possess. Instead, it’s cautiously dipping a toe into the poisonous waters of delegitimization. If the Israelis won’t voluntarily listen to the impassioned appeals of Europeans on behalf of Palestinian rights, as the refrain goes, then they will have to be pressured into doing so. That, in part, explains why European governments continue to financially support NGOs promoting BDS against Israel—and again, as the Israeli watchdog NGO Monitor has noted, the primary offender here is the Dutch government, which is backing at least 17 such organizations.

I’ve observed that many American Jews tend to look at the European spectacle with bewildered dismay. How is it possible, they ask, that the continent of the Holocaust can play such an active role in economic warfare against the Jewish state? Don’t Europeans have the decency to realize that their history determines that they should be doing the opposite? 

None of these arguments wash with Europe’s political elite. Indeed, so determined are they to ignore the history of the last century that the EU’s Ambassador to Israel, Lars Faaborg-Andersen, had this to say about Israel’s insistence on Palestinian recognition of a Jewish state in Israeli-Palestinian conflict negotiations: “I don’t think we have any clear position on that because we’re not 100 per cent sure what is meant by this concept of a Jewish state.”

Ben Cohen

What it means, Ambassador, is that never again will non-Jews control the security and wellbeing of the Jewish people. We’ve already been down that road with you, and we don’t intend to travel along it again.

Ben Cohen is the Shillman Analyst for JNS.org. His writings on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics have been published in Commentary, the New York Post, Ha’aretz, Jewish Ideas Daily and many other publications.

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Posted on January 24, 2014 and filed under Opinion, Israel, World.