WASHINGTON (Feb. 24)
In the eyes of some Jewish leaders, Francois Zimeray did the impossible.
Last month, the French representative to the European Parliament was able to garner signatures from more than 170 other legislators calling for an official inquiry into how the Palestinian Authority uses aid from the European Union.
Given the growing anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment in Europe — and frustration over a possible attack on Iraq led by Israel’s American ally — Zimeray’s accomplishment was no small feat.
“It really shows that even in the European Parliament there are undercurrents that should be explored that could bring changes in policy,” said Avi Beker, secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress.
Zimeray was in the United States last week to learn how the American Jewish community influences U.S. politics, hoping to apply the lessons in Europe.
U.S. Jewry “is a professional, organized community that has determined to play a political role,” said Zimeray, who is Jewish himself. “Such is not the case in Europe, and that has to change.”
The WJC and other Jewish groups support Zimeray’s idea of a Jewish lobby for the European Parliament.
“There is a need to create something that works directly with European institutions” to address problems such as anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiment, Beker said.
Zimeray hopes the European Union can take a larger role in fostering Israeli-Palestinian peace if it take a more balanced view.
“If the Europeans had the will to change the situation, we have the means to do it,” Zimeray told JTA in a telephone interview. Instead, he said, the European Union has been “blinded by the Palestinian Authority. We have refused to see that the reality was not in accordance with our idea of the reality.”
Europe has continued to support the Palestinian Authority, even after the United States cut ties to Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat because of his alleged support for terrorism.
Hoping to prevent fraud, U.S. aid for the Palestinians is distributed to nongovernmental agencies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip through the United States Agency for International Development. Europe, however, gives aid directly to the Palestinian Authority.
Since the 1993 Oslo peace accord with Israel, the European Union has provided the Palestinian Authority with about $1.4 billion in various forms of aid. Since the intifada began more than two years ago, the European Union has been providing about $10 million a month in special assistance to help the Palestinian Authority meet its budgetary obligations — including salary payments for members of the various Palestinian security services, many of whom have been involved in terrorism, Israel says.
Israeli officials have argued that E.U. funds deposited in the P.A. treasury could be part of the money Arafat has funneled to terrorists or to the families of suicide bombers.
“If we had, in the past, been more demanding with the Palestinians, we would have saved lives,” Zimeray said.
He specifically cites the anti-Israel propaganda in Palestinian textbooks, prepared by the Palestinian Authority but largely funded by the international community.
“It is clear that all of the children that received this education do not become suicide bombers,” he said, “but all suicide bombers received this education.”
Despite the signatures Zimeray garnered, the E.U.’s presidential commission declined to call for an official inquiry into how the Palestinian Authority spends E.U. funds. Still, the Parliament will conduct an informal inquiry into the matter, and the E.U.’s anti-fraud agency is launching its own inquiry.
“One month ago, when you” talked about “corruption in the Palestinian Authority, it was blasphemy,” Zimeray said. “Now it is considered a serious issue.”
Zimeray already is setting his sights on new challenges, such as quelling the growing anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment across Europe.
“Israel is seen as an American state in Europe,” he said, at a time when “Europeans define themselves as non-Americans.”
In fact, hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated in European cities earlier this month against an impending U.S.-led war on Iraq. Zimeray says he anticipates that anti-Israel sentiment will grow if the United States does go to war without European support.
For 50 years, European policy toward Israel was based on compassion because of the atrocities of the Holocaust, he said. In recent years, however, Europe has gone from the days of the Nuremberg trials against Nazi leaders to the Sharon trials, he said, referring to charges filed in Belgium that accuse Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of crimes against humanity.
“My observation is that Europe does not know anymore the real Israel,” Zimeray said. “We have to take the initiative to make the link between Europe and Israel.”
Zimeray envisions a Europe-Israel Strategy Center, an independent agency that would work to improve perceptions of Israel both at the level of the European Union and in individual countries.
It is important to make clear that the people of Israel and the United States are not single-minded, and it would be beneficial to bring Israeli leaders to Europe who could articulate alternative points of view, Zimeray said.
Given the number of calls in Europe to boycott Israeli products, Zimeray said it also must be stressed that both Israel and Europe benefit from their economic ties.