After Season of Frost, Fragile Thaw Seen in Israeli-european Relations

After years of mutual distrust and periodic acrimony, there are signs of a thaw in relations between Israel and Europe.

As Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was feted in London this week, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom pressed a new “friendship with Europe” initiative. Also, the European Union recently put out feelers about including Israel in plans for a “wider Europe.”

But though the stage for warmer ties was set by the revival of an Israeli-Palestinian peace process, there are still deep differences between Israel and Europe on the Palestinian issue.

And while Israel’s relations with European governments may be improving, the same can’t be said about public opinion: In much of Europe, Israel is still getting what it considers to be hostile press.

In London early this week, Sharon received expansive red carpet treatment. In a rare gesture of friendship and support, British Prime Minister Tony Blair invited his Israeli counterpart to a private dinner at his home at 10 Downing Street. British officials were at pains to point out that few foreign dignitaries are honored in this way.

“Not even Blair’s close friend George Bush was invited to dinner at No. 10,” a senior official was quoted as saying.

For several months now, JTA has learned, Britain’s Foreign Office has believed that Sharon wants to make peace with the Palestinians, but will find it difficult to make concessions. By exuding warmth and friendship, Blair apparently feels he can encourage Sharon to take the tough decisions.

Sharon, however, maintains that Britain and the rest of Europe first need to change their attitude toward Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Sharon argues that the power struggle between Arafat and the P.A. prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, really is a struggle over the peace process, which Arafat wants to destroy and Abbas wants to push forward.

To prove his point, Sharon presented Israeli intelligence reports to Blair, and is openly urging British and other European leaders to boycott Arafat.

The Americans back Sharon on this, but the Europeans so far mainly do not. Most recently, a delegation of British legislators and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov visited Arafat at his Ramallah headquarters, knowing that Sharon and Shalom would refuse to see them as a result.

Of the major European players, only Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, pointedly refused to meet with Arafat.

Sharon warns that if the Europeans keep strengthening Arafat, and if Abbas is forced to step down as a result, Israel will have to reconsider its attitude to the internationally approved “road map” peace plan.

Despite these differences, European attitudes to Israel seem to be changing dramatically. In early July, soon after the road map was set in motion, Israeli and E.U. officials met in Brussels for the annual review of Israel’s economic association agreement with the European Union.

According to Oded Eran, Israel’s ambassador to the European Union, the Europeans were unexpectedly forthcoming: They declared that E.U. relations with Israel no longer would be contingent on progress in the peace process.

More importantly, the officials indicated that the European Union was interested in including Israel in its plans for a “wider Europe.” They even suggested upgrading the economic association with Israel and adopting the model of the E.U.’s close ties with Switzerland and Norway.

There was, however, one request of Israel: that it ratify the Kyoto Protocol on environmental protection, which would mean enough countries had signed the treaty to bring it into force, despite American objections.

The new European openness to Israel has struck a receptive chord in the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Arguing that Israel has neglected ties with Europe for too long, Shalom launched what he calls a European “friendship campaign” with a visit to Italy last week, which he intends to follow up at the upcoming session of the Council of European Foreign Ministers in Brussels.

For their part, the Europeans make it clear that although they want to play a role in the peace process, their aim is only to aid or complement the United States, which will continue to be the main player.

As Israel-E.U. ties warm up, there is a lot of old animosity to overcome. Britain is a case in point: In the run up to the war with Iraq, British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw spoke about a double standard and seemed to compare Israel to Iraq; Blair himself pressured Bush to pressure Israel to accept the road map; Britain hosted a conference on reform of the Palestinian Authority without inviting Israelis; and Britain last year also unofficially embargoed arms to Israel that it felt might be used in the conflict with the Palestinians.

Some British media, especially the BBC, continue to be hypercritical of Israel. Indeed, the screening of a recent BBC documentary on Israel’s unconventional weapons led the Foreign Ministry’s P.R. bosses to sever ties with the BBC.

The film compares Israel to Iraq, implies Israel is not a democracy and falsely alleges that Israel used nerve gas against the Palestinians. It employs contrived concentration camp imagery, drawing jailed nuclear spy. Mordechai Vanunu clutching at and peering through a barbed wire fence; blames Sharon for the Sabra and Shatila massacre of Palestinian refugees in 1982, without mentioning that the killing was the work of Lebanese Christian militiamen allied to Israel; and juxtaposes America’s refusal to discuss Israel’s nuclear capability with President Bush saying “the greatest danger facing America and the world is outlaw regimes that seek and possess nuclear, chemical and biological weapons.”

This kind of media treatment, the pressure of large anti-Israel Muslim populations in several European countries, complex European guilt feelings toward the Jews, Europe’s colonial past and Europe’s strong human rights focus all make for highly problematic relations between Europe and Israel, which many Europeans see as an “occupying power.”

As a fragile new Israeli-Palestinian peace process gets under way, it remains to be seen whether early signs of Europe’s reassessment of ties with Israel herald a fundamental change in attitudes and policies.

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