Articles

European Israeli Dialogue

Berlin conference, 14-15 December, 2002

I feel very reticent at speaking to such a distinguished audience on any aspect of the Middle East crisis.

In particular it is not easy to follow last night's brilliant speech by Bernard Lewis, who dealt with Israel's relations with the European Union far better than I ever could. Bernard pointed out that the Palestinians' sponsors have been the Nazis, the Soviets, and now the EU. Does precedent suggest that the prospects for the EU are not too rosey ?

I got back from Israel on Friday night. While there I met an old friend, the Czech ambassador, Daniel Kumerman.

Daniel was a student activist in the Prague Spring of 1968 and after the Russian reimposed their dictatorship he lived a sort of limbo life in the 70s and 80s, supporting the peaceful Czech resistance that grouped itself around the then playwright, Vaclav Havel.

Daniel's father, a Jew, had left Prague for Israel in 1939 to escape Hitler and had made the mistake of returning after the war, to find himself bringing up a family under the Soviet empire.

Daniel recalled to me that throughout his childhood, his father had one remark whenever he read the papers or heard the news. Good for Israel. Bad for Israel. Daniel understood that THAT was what mattered.

Last week I visited for the first time, the West Bank and Gaza. Both seemed to me to be very bad for Israel.

I visited Hebron, where the 24 hour curfew in the streets around the tomb of Abraham and the spectacle of young Israeli soldiers keeping at bay a huge Arab population, so that a very small group of fundamentalist settlers could do as they wished, seemed very bad for Israel. The tragedy of this situation is constantly brought home: some two weeks ago 12 Israeli soldiers were killed in Hebron. Two nights ago another two were killed by a sniper and the Israeli Defence Forces immediately began bulldozing Palestinian houses around the tomb.

Gaza seemed very bad for Israel. The demographic threat that many speakers talked of yesterday is very obvious. Over a million people sitting around with nothing to do. Almost every wall in the camps there was covered with Hamas hate slogans. A couple of days five young unarmed men seeking work were gunned down by an IDF tank as they tried desperately to get out. Bad for Israel.

All the Israelis I met agreed that Hebron and Gaza are bad for Israel. One huge change over the last 20 years is that now the great majority of Israelis accept the need for Israeli withdrawal and a Palestinian state.

But the problem, as we discussed yesterday, is how to get to there from here and not seem to be bowing to the terror of the intifada. How can Israel come to a peace and allow the occupied territories to return to some sort of normality without laying itself open to more suicide bombers attacking buses and cafes ?

Here I think the EU and Europeans in general have a role to play. I was rather shocked by what I learned in Israel of EU attitudes. I share much of what Per Ahlmark and Shlomo Avineri said last night.

I saw Amram Mitzna, the new Labour Party leader, in Tel Aviv; he himself said that one of the reasons why Israelis will vote in such large numbers for Sharon is that they feel that everyone, especially the EU, is against them.

Why and how we can change this ? That seems to me to be a real imperative.

Ambassador Chevallard, the head of the EU Commission delegation in Israel, recently made a speech in Tel Aviv called The Troubled Relationship between the EU and Israel.

He identified what I think is the core of the problem, or part of the core.

He said, 'The young Israeli state, born out of two thousand years of diaspora and continuously faced with external threats, has been naturally grounded on strong nationalistic feelings. The pursuit of almost total self-reliance, the practice of exclusive sovereignty, the importance given to land and control of borders as well as to the military rather than the civilian components of security are core principles of the State of Israel. The European countries have, on the contrary, developed the EU to make those very principles obsolete, by pooling national sovereignties, abolishing the borders and establishing it as a civilian rather than a military world player.'

That's fair enough I think, though it raises and then skirts by some of the problems raised within Europe itself by the insatiable demands of the Union.

But then Chevallard went on to say 'We have therefore some difficulties in understanding, especially lately, this country's almost exclusive reliance on itself and on its force.'

This is where I pause. Is it really true that Europeans have difficulty in understanding Israel's self reliance? Sadly I suppose it is. But I wonder why ?

It seems to me that the history of the last two thousand years, which Chevallard cites, and of the last fifty, make it very clear why Israel has to depend on itself. There is no one else who is reliable, with the vital exception of the United States.

Chevallard did also say that, living in Israel, 'I understand better than other Europeans the existential fear of the country. I am brought face to face with the extent of pain and destruction caused by terrorism. I appreciate the vitality and wish for Western normality of most of its citizens. I am not sure that many Europeans have the same understanding.'

That is undoubtedly true. And I think one of the things we should ask ourselves, and I am certainly asking myself, is WHY ? Why do so few Europeans understand that part of the Israeli dilemma ? The blame must lie both our governments for not expressing it themselves, and with our media for not describing it.

How many Europeans know that every Israeli child has a gas mask ? Not many, perhaps.

Attitudes to Israel differ country from country of course. Some see Israel as an American proxy and object to it on those grounds. Others are determined to see only the suffering of the Palestinians and to blame that suffering on Israeli repression, while disregarding the failings of Palestinian leaders and allies.

In Britain many people find it easier to denounce Israeli brutality than to praise the resilience of Israeli democracy, where Arab members of the Knesset can still denounce the IDF and where the judicial system is still strong - despite the endlewar.

I understand why the EU supported the Palestinian Authority and Arafat. But why so long ? In some ways Milosevic had more legitimacy. Is there any other organisation which endorses or at least allows the methods used by the Palestinian Authority which Europe would support ?

What pressure has the EU put on Arafat ? Has it threatened to stop funding him, unlehe controls the horror of the intifada? Did it respond forcefully to his speech requesting a million martyrs to march on Jerusalem ? Does the EU really want to see a root and branch reform of the Palestinian Authority ? Sometimes it seems that in Brussels everything has to BEGIN with an Israeli withdrawal.

Even Palestinian leaders are now moving away from the intifada. Several speakers yesterday mentioned the recent speech of Abu Mazem.

Is there any reason to think that the present Palestinian Authority can ever produce a decent state for Palestinians ?

Of course, the EU can never have the influence in Israel that the US has but at the moment it seems to have none at all - neither on the Israeli government nor on the Palestinians.

Europe tends to support principally the left and the peace movement in Israel. This is filled with wonderful people but perhaps we should remember that it was Begin who was able to make peace with Egypt and that it is Sharon who has control of the government now.

It was the US not the EU which pressured Israel to unblock the PA's frozen tax revenues last week.

Europe and the US should be united on this crisis - divided they perpetuate it.

Israelis I met often described themselves as realists. Europeans should be more realistic also. They ought to understand that Israel will not sacrifice itself, will not give up.

We need to understand better the existential threat that all Israelis see themselves as facing. The failure of Camp David and Taba were not road accidents; they were watersheds - rather as 911 was in America.

We need to recognise that it is the intifada that has destroyed the peace proceand all but destroyed the Israeli left.

But No - instead of trying to understand these things, instead of denouncing Arafat and the suicide bombers who are celebrated in Palestine, we attack Israel.

We boycott Israeli academics, an odious trend. Some countries talk of boycotting Israeli mail and Israeli goods. There is talk of Israel being 'the new South Africa', the new untouchable.

This is bad for Israel and bad for the Palestinians.

But I think it is will change soon with the accession of the new members of the EU. Having been menaced so long by the Soviet Union, they understand the existential threat to national existence.

They owe far more gratitude to America than do the older members of the EU; they understand better American values, and they have much more sympathy for Israel.

This is one reason why I am glad that Europe will be enlarged. Good for Israel. And good for a lasting just settlement with the Palestinians, for which there is, as several speakers said yesterday, an urgent need.

Simon Peres once said that Europeans seem to think that Israel had a choice of living either a Swedish reality or an Israeli reality - and we blame it because it has chosen the Israeli reality. That is bad for Israel - and bad for Europe too.

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