PRAGUE (JTA) – When Israel asked for European troops, including Germans, to patrol the Israel-Lebanon border area following Israel’s 2006 war with Hezbollah, it was a salient sign of how far European ties with Israel have come in recent years.
“Who would have ever thought that German soldiers would be charged – and trusted – to protect Israelis 65 years after the Holocaust?” observed Oded Eran, formerly Israel’s ambassador to the European Union and now head of the World Jewish Congress office in Jerusalem.
The Germany-Israel bond was further underscored in March when German Chancellor Angela Merkel addressed the Israeli Knesset in German and held an unprecedented joint Cabinet meeting with the Israeli government.
Across Europe, similar signs show the warming relations with Israel, at least on the political and institutional levels.
Earlier this month, Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk visited Israel in what both sides deemed a turning point in bilateral relations since Poland became a democracy in 1990. Last October, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was received warmly in Britain when he visited 10 Downing St. And for the first time in 25 years, France has a president, Nicolas Sarkozy, keen on making the country’s foreign policy friendlier toward Israel.
“I cannot recall a time when there has been such a positive flurry of diplomatic exchange between Israel and Europe,” said Arye Mekel, a spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry.
Many diplomats and analysts say Europe-Israeli relations are in a new era of growing cooperation and understanding following years of mistrust and recrimination.
“Relations have improved and matured substantially in recent years,” said Ran Curiel, Israel’s ambassador to the 27-country European Union in Brussels.
The improvement in ties is a consequence of quietly enhanced economic cooperation, the European Union’s expansion to include unabashedly pro-Israel countries from the former Eastern bloc such as Poland and the Czech Republic, and the replacement of the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat with the more tractable Mahmoud Abbas as president of the Palestinian Authority.
Still, public opinion across Europe, according to polls and media reports, continues to cast Israel in an unfavorable light. This is evident in the negative media coverage of Israel during the Second Lebanon War in the summer of 2006, stepped-up criticism of Israel by European nongovernmental organizations and ongoing British trade union calls for boycotts of Israeli goods and academics.
“The media and church institutions since 2000 have tended to adopt a position which suggests people don’t support Israel’s right to defend itself, which means they don’t support its right to exist,” said Robin Shepherd, a senior fellow at Chatham House, a London think tank.
“What is still missing is to correct the [public’s] image of Israel,” said the secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress, Serge Cwajgenbaum. “The image is still unbalanced.”
On the governmental level, however, ties between Europe and Israel appear to be at a high point.
Some examples: European governments across the continent are holding celebrations for Israel’s 60th birthday. Israel trusts Europe to train P.A. security forces and oversee the international funding of the Palestinian Authority. Germany plays a key role lobbying for European support for Israel. And the British government has proven to be a staunch ally of Israel, domestic criticism of its policy notwithstanding.
In recent years, Israel has gained many trade and aid benefits associated with E.U. membership due to the adoption in 2005 of the union’s European Neighborhood Policy. One-third of Israeli exports last year went to the European Union. Plans call for Israeli cooperation in the European space agency, and the sharing of intelligence is rising.
Such ties once were linked to Israeli progress in the peace process. That’s no longer the case, Curiel says.
“You don’t hear calls for sanctions against Israel anymore every time there is a disagreement about Israeli policy,” he said.
This is a relatively new development. European politicians weaned on the milk of post-World War II rapprochement long have castigated Israeli military operations viewed by Israeli officials as vital to survival.
During the early years of the second intifada, which began in 2000, E.U. External Affairs Minister Chris Patten consistenly harangued Israeli leaders over the country’s targeted assassinations of Palestinian terrorists, the West Bank security fence and Jewish settlement growth.
Europe wasn’t always tilted against Israel. In the early years of the state, when Israel was seen as the underdog, it found friends and arms suppliers in Europe.
That changed following the 1967 Six-Day War.
“This is partly ideology, and partly oil, as Arabs were threatening to turn off the spigot,” said Jonathan Rynhold, a professor of political science at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University and a researcher at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
Israeli-European discord worsened when Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982.
“Whatever is left of the image of plucky little democratic Israel, darling of the left, becomes to some the big bully Israel, the brutal occupying country,” Rynhold said. “The first intifada, starting in 1987, just magnifies this negative picture.”
Hope emerged during myriad episodes of negotiations, but the collapse of the Oslo peace process and the second intifada sent Israel-Europe ties to a new low.
In 2004, after the International Court of Justice at The Hague condemned the West Bank security fence, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon told then-European Union Council Secretary-General Javier Solana that the court must think “Jewish blood is cheap.”
Sharon also called the European Union, which had backed the court’s conclusion, biased against Israel.
But the ensuing few years changed the tenor of the relationship significantly.
In 2004 and 2007, the European Union extended membership to 11 post-communist countries that are notably more pro-American and pro-Israel than older E.U. members. These countries, associating inaction with appeasement and noting their suffering under the Soviets, don’t share Western Europe’s aversion to Israeli military actions.
In Madrid in 2004 and in London the next year, deadly terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists gave European leaders a better sense of what Israel was facing.
Perhaps most important, Israel’s disengagement from the Gaza Strip in 2005 dispelled the European conception that Israel is unwilling to make sacrifices for peace.
“Israel’s formal acceptance of the two-state solution cemented a new, closer understanding between top-level Israeli and European politicians,” Curiel said.
But many European politicians remain upset about Israeli settlement activity and Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians, according to the vice president of the European Parliament, Britain’s Edward McMillon Scott.
“If Israel can pull out of Gaza, Israel can pull out of the occupied territories,” he told JTA. “Yes, it is true there is more cooperation on the institutional level – call it normalization – but after the invasion of southern Lebanon, I think many of us thought Israel had lost its bearings.”
Some other sticking points remain. The European Union refuses to label Lebanon’s Hezbollah a terrorist organization, E.U. funds go to anti-Israel nongovernmental organizations, and Israel wants Europe to do more to stop Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
Still, Israeli diplomats say, their concerns at least are being heard, even if they are not all being addressed.