LONDON (Sep. 27)
The Israeli prime minister is enjoying a blissful honeymoon with the United States, but he must still worry about placating Europe.
While Israel’s relations with Washington — based on an intricate web of political, economic, strategic and cultural ties — are generally warm and cordial, its relations with Europe are generally prickly.
True, the welcome Ehud Barak received in Berlin and Pari last week was far warmer than his predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, could have expected.
By vigorously pushing ahead in the peace process, Barak has, for the moment at least, changed the dynamic of events and taken some of the wind out of the European sails.
“They do no have too much room for grandstanding right now,” a senior Israeli source told JTA this week, “but I have no doubt that they will be back in full cry when the spotlight picks out issues like Jerusalem and refugees.”
Beyond the diplomatic platitudes and the bitter memories of recent history that inevitably infused Barak’s visit to Germany and France, however, there is a dense subtext on both sides of the divide.
For Barak, the importance of Europe is, first and foremost, that it is Israel’s single-largest trading partner, with Europe enjoying a significant advantage in the balance of trade.
Second, Europe is the single-largest donor to the Palestinian Authority and, thus, an important element in the peace process.
Europe has long demanded a greater role in Middle East diplomacy — equivalent at least to that of the United States.
European leaders want to translate their financial influence into political clout — to play an active role in Middle East peacemaking.
They are not content with having the United States taking center stage at high- profile signing ceremonies. They want to be inside the negotiating room, not simply in walk-on roles or as part of a legitimizing umbrella.
The Israelis are playing a carefully calibrated game, which involves promoting its own economic interests with Europe while keeping the Europeans at arm’s length when it comes to the peace process.
They want Europe to continue to financially underwrite Palestinian endeavors, but they also want to ensure that European aspirations to political arm- twisting and diplomatic power-brokering are kept on hold.
From Jerusalem’s perspective, the Europeans are fickle at best, treacherous at worst; ultimately, they are perceived to be irredeemably overbalanced in favor of the Arabs.
The Israelis remember that France supplied Iraq with a reactor that took Saddam Hussein to within touching distance of acquiring nuclear capability during the 1980s — forestalled only by an Israeli air raid that destroyed the Osirak facility.
They remember that the Germans’ lax export controls permitted German companies to supply much of the material that enabled Iraq to develop its chemical and biological capabilities, which U.N. weapons inspectors are still not convinced they have completely dismantled.
And they know that the British are turning diplomatic somersaults to overlook the ambitions of Iran’s mullahs and Libya’s Muammar Gadhafi in Britain’s haste to re-establish diplomatic relations — and secure contracts — with Tehran and Tripoli.
The name of the game is trade and, in its scramble for markets, Europe is apparently content to ignore the strategic implications of its actions in the knowledge that when matters get out of hand the United States will rush in to clear up the mess.
Moreover, while the “partners” in the European Union appear to speak with a single voice, they are in fact fierce national competitors for brownie points with their putative Middle East trading partners.
In their anxiety to appease Arab and Islamic sensibilities, they often rush to adopt the most extreme anti-Israeli postures.
Apart from opposing terrorism — and even that, in some cases, is mere lip service — there are virtually no demands that the Arab states make on Israel that Europe does not support.
The point Israel constantly makes to Europe is that winning the confidence of both sides is a precondition to a serious mediating, or even facilitating, role in Arab-Israeli affairs.
Just last weekend, France announced two initiatives:
First, it rushed in with an offer to foot the bill for a proposed Palestinian seaport in the Gaza Strip, even though the project is still in an embryonic stage and subject to negotiation.
Second, it offered troops to fill the vacuum left by a departing Israel in the south Lebanese security zone.
But when the chips are down, will it risk offending the Syrians, with whom France recently concluded a “strategic partnership?” Will it scramble its Mystere jets to strike at Hezbollah missile launchers when they threaten to bombard Israel?
“Will it? Hell,” said a senior Israeli source.
On a political level, the Europeans are thought to be biding their time. After monetary union, the Europeans, looking to reinforce their supranational ideals, are now aiming to achieve a single position on foreign affairs and defense, having lured former NATO Secretary-General Javier Solana to oversee the process.
Britain, which is still pondering the merits of joining the single currency, is said to be making up for its apparent lack of enthusiasm by blazing the trail in developing the single foreign and defense voice.
Officials are said to be aiming to produce a seamless, harmonized policy by the end of this year on the one policy issue they could be expected to agree: the Arab-Israeli dispute.
It will come just in time for the political pyrotechnics that are expected to emerge from the region in the second half of next year, when final-status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will approach their difficult climax.
At the same time, two related events will occur: United States attention will be focused on the final stages of its election campaigns, while France — the most ambitious of the European states for an active Middle East role — will hold the rotating presidency of the European Union.
Washington will be unlikely to have the energy or the motivation to continue to micromanage the peace process, and Paris is no doubt preparing to seize the moment and fill the vacuum with the new, harmonized European voice.
The Israeli source had just such an eventuality in mind when he noted that “Europe’s tendency to produce statements and declarations on how they see the outcome of negotiations is not helpful.”
Barak has his work cut out in balancing Europe’s overweening diplomatic ambitions with Israel’s vital economic interests.
Not too far down the road, he will clearly have to display some skillful diplomatic footwork in order to avoid the close European embrace that is being prepared for him.