The European Enigma

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Israel’s relationship with Europe is complex to say the least. Anti-Semitism is on the rise, and Israel is routinely assailed by pro-Palestinian activists on the continent. At the same time, Germany has sold multiple nuclear submarines to Israel, and the British finally changed a law that results in less legal harassment for Israeli officials visiting the country. Two of Israel’s closer friends have recently been forced out of power, but one of their stronger critics was too. So, is the relationship getting better, worse, or staying the same? It depends on where you look.

Politically Intriguing

Politically, Israel and Europe have an almost schizophrenic relationship. For example, French President Nicolas Sarkozy actually proposed letting the Palestinians have a partial upgrade in their United Nations status, but also has been one of the forces discouraging the Palestinians from pushing for full membership. Germany declared it would veto a Palestinian UN move months ago, but has also been critiqued for being slow to halt business relations with Iran. Country-to-country differences are stark: Iceland approved the recognition of the state of “Palestine,” while Italy hosted the Israelis for military drills.

The leaders in Europe tend to be the best friends of Israel in the continent, but that doesn’t make them perfect friends. Dr. Alfred Tovias, the Walter Rathenau Professor in European Economics and the chairman of the Department of International Relations at the Hebrew University, said in an interview with The Mideast Update that he is “modestly optimistic” about the political relationship between Israel and Europe. A key reason is the views of the leaders.

Germany

German Chancellor Angela Merkel
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He said German Chancellor Angela Merkel is seen as a “champion of Israel.” Tovias said Merkel holds views more favorable to Israel on the resolution of the Palestinian conflict than the government of their last leader, Gerhard Schroder. Plus, her nation provided a mediator in the Gilad Shalit negotiations between Israel and Hamas.

France

French President Nicolas Sarkozy
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Over in France, President Sarkozy is up and down with regards to Israel. France caused a stir when they voted in favor of the UN cultural body (UNESCO) accepting “Palestine” as a member. But generally, Tovias said that Sarkozy and Merkel both are comparable to US President Barack Obama in terms of their positions on the Israeli–Arab conflict—maybe in some ways more favorable to Israel.

That’s not a ringing endorsement considering Obama’s administration has been more hotly critical of Israel than either of the previous two US presidents, but it’s better than a lot of other nations. However, it would be incorrect to think that all is well in European–Israeli political relations. Sarkozy and Obama took heat for criticizing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu when their microphones were accidentally left on, and the UNESCO situation was a clear break in policy between France and Israel.

Italy, Greece, and Spain

Former Italian President Silvio Berlusconi
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Part of the challenge in deciphering the Israeli–European friendship is the change happening in Europe. Two of Israel’s closer friends in Europe, Italian President Silvio Berlusconi and Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou, both were forced out of office, while the government of Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, a critic of Israel, was also knocked out of power. Tovias noted that Greece has an ongoing interest in relations with Israel: a common concern in Turkey. Israel and Istanbul used to be friends, but that relationship has deteriorated dramatically as Turkey has moved away from Israel in an apparent effort to take a bigger role in the Muslim world.

Former Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou
en.wikipedia.org
Tovias said Greece, meanwhile, has a disproportionately large army because of their rivalry and enmity with Turkey. So Greece has a good reason regardless of their new leadership to keep the relations with Israel healthy. Tovias noted that it appears the Israel-views of Italy’s new prime minister, Mario Monti, appear to be “nothing special” when it comes to his approach to Israel, just the standard European style. That is a clear downgrade from Berlusconi, who Tovias pointed out actually said Israel should be part of the European Union.

At the same time, Tovias argued “there is a compensation” for Israel in Europe due to the likely improving relations between Israel and Spain.

Iceland, Ireland, and Scandinavia

Israel’s political relations with some countries in Europe clearly aren’t good. Iceland made their surprising Palestinian move in December, and a report in Ynet decried the disastrous state of affairs in Ireland’s relations with Israel, quoting the Israeli Foreign Ministry as saying that Ireland has become the most hostile country to Israel in the European Union because of its hostile anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activities.

Scandinavian countries also tend to be more critical and less supportive of Israel. And Tovias sees a potential concern for Israel with the European governments over the economic crisis, which has the chance to paralyze the EU’s foreign relations—although that could reduce pressure on Israel too. The crisis does have a negative impact on trade with Israel.

Generally Speaking

One area where Israel and Europe have been closer is the Iranian situation. The Europeans have enacted several rounds of sanctions on Iran, some on their own, some as part of the UN—although those can be tougher. Tovias noted that while European trade with Iran hasn’t been stopped, German subs sold to Israel are believed to be capable of carrying nuclear missiles—giving Israel a retaliatory option against Iran. There was also a report in The Guardian that the UK was preparing in case the US asked them to join a war with Iran over their nuclear program. Again, things aren’t perfect, but there is a clear silver lining.

Tovias said the warm feelings of European leaders towards Israel aren’t necessarily translating to the populace, however. He noted that “the problem of Israel in Europe is not the government. The problem is public opinion.” He linked that to a view on the conflict with the Palestinians that is less sympathetic than in the US, rather than anti-Semitism. But for too many, it’s more than just negative opinion, as anti-Semitism is on the rise and Israel is a target.

Old Evil, New Twist

That anti-Semitism is on the rise in Europe is troubling enough, but the numbers in 2009 were absolutely shocking. That year set a record for an entire year’s worth of anti-Semitic incidents in the UK—in the first six months. Community Security Trust (CST), a Jewish organization in the UK that among other things records anti-Semitism in the country, has shown that since 2001, anti-Semitism has more than doubled (from 310 incidents in 2001 to 639 in 2010).

However, anti-Semitic incidents have generally stabilized in the 500-plus per year range since 2004. The massive spike in 2009 was partly an unjustified reaction to the 2009 Gaza war, known as Operation Cast Lead. Israel sought to defend itself from years of rocket fire by delivering a blow to Hamas, but some used the conflict as an excuse to spew out more hate than usual.

Students demonstrating against war in Gaza—Edinburgh, Scotland, 2009 In looking at Europe’s overall relationship with Israel, anti-Semitism has to be included because Israel is a key reason for it. Serge Cwajgenbaum, secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress, told The Mideast Update that some took anti-Semtism in a new direction in Europe. Cwajgenbaum said it is “not a traditional anti-Semitism—which still exists and is probably slightly decreasing—but starting from the first and the second intifadas [Palestinian terror wars], Jews in Europe were the target of anti-Israeli groups who found the Jews as the forefront of the battle against Israel.”

Thankfully, there has been a slight decrease in the number of attacks in the large Jewish communities according to Cwajgenbaum, a statement paralleled by the decline in the UK in 2010—although CST said 2010 still had the second highest number of incidents ever recorded by them. But the numbers only tell part of the story.

Increased Security Needed

To get a full picture of what’s happening to Jews in Europe, one only needs to look at their security. “There’s only one minority in Europe, one group, which has to pray under police protection. It’s the Jews,” said Cwajgenbaum. “There’s only one group in Europe which sends its kids to school under the protection of the police—it’s the Jews. It’s about time that this doesn’t become the normality in the continent, which considers itself as the continent of the fight against racism.” He noted that “no country is spared” from anti-Semitism. Cwajgenbaum said that “Old Europe” has had more anti-Semitism attacks than central and eastern European countries which are newer to the EU.

The Internet

One factor in anti-Semitism is the Internet. Cwajgenbaum called it an “uncontrolled tool” that allows people to spread hate with anonymity. And online hate directed at Israel isn’t just political; Israel is unfairly condemned for perceived injustice while silence often persists regarding nations that are serious human rights offenders. However, that doesn’t mean that Israel can fix the problem of anti-Semitism by just compromising a bit more with the neighbors. Cwajgenbaum said that advice from “so-called friends” who say that if one wants to end anti-Semitism in Europe, more pressure should be put on Israel is “absolutely ridiculous.”

Radical Islam

A key problem for Jews in Europe has been the rise in extremist Islam in the continent. “The new form of anti-Semitism comes from some radical Islamic elements, people who preach in the mosques the hate against Jews and against Israel very openly,” said Cwajgenbaum. “And they find normal, that after being incited by people against Israel and against Jews, to take a revenge and to target Jews wherever they are.” And as Operation Cast Lead showed, Israel’s justified reasons for their fight don’t matter to those who are looking for an excuse to unleash invective.

Despite the troubling growth of anti-Israel and anti-Jewish hate in Europe, that doesn’t mean the situation is without hope. Cwajgenbaum noted that the European Jewish Congress is dialoguing with moderate Muslims. In fact, the UK, ironically enough, is the home to the “British Muslims for Israel” group. They advocate for Israel while upholding the nation as a human rights example to Muslim nations run by brutal dictators.

In addition, European governments are working with Jewish groups as well to combat racism, although more needs to be done. “We as Jews initiated various initiatives which have been taken by the European Parliament and later by the European Commission in establishing a permanent research center in Vienna against racism and anti-Semitism,” said Cwajgenbaum, who noted they are also calling for more steps to be taken to improve implementation of legislation fighting racism.

Bleaker, not Brighter

So similar to the political environment, the overall climate towards Jews in Europe isn’t a clear-cut situation. Unlike the politics, however, it’s certainly more troubling. And considering the fact that Europe’s leaders are elected by its citizens, the days ahead are looking bleaker, not brighter.

The Israeli–European relationship certainly could be better, but the partial aligning of Israeli interests with those in Europe on multiple issues—especially Iran—gives a more positive feel to the situation for now. The more troubling matter is the increase of anti-Semitism. CST’s numbers have shown a rise in the last six years, although the decline in 2010 gives hope that the numbers will not increase without end. While anti-Semitism is not universal, the overall popular view towards Israel is where the battle for Europe will need to be fought. Hearts and minds are not all that is at stake.

Cwajgenbaum has an important warning for the continent: Hate always starts with the Jews, but it never ends there. Some Europeans may think that friendship with Israel is creating unnecessary tensions with the Muslim world, but if the negative views of the populace translate into antagonistic governments towards Israel and European governments abandon Israel, they may find out too late that radical Islam’s hatred of Israel isn’t the root of the conflict. It’s the beginning.

Source: By Joshua Spurlock, www.themideastupdate.com