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Jewish Officials Watch and Wait As Europeans Vote for Legislators

June 8, 2004
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Many observers agree that the European Parliament has reached new lows with its voting record on Israel during its recent four-year term. How upcoming elections for the Parliament — voters from 25 countries will elect 732 legislators this weekend — will affect that record remains an open question.

For the first time, the 10 new Central and Eastern European countries that joined the union May 1 also will take part in elections to the Parliament, the European Union’s legislative body, a factor that could have a large impact on the legislation’s composition.

“They’re more pro-Israel than what has been the traditional E.U. line, and we’re certainly happy that they’re coming in,” one Israeli diplomatic source said. “Already, we’re seeing their influence begin to filter through with the recent blocking of a declaration condemning Israel in the European Council.”

But “I don’t want to get into speculations about which parties might make gains ! at the elections or which groups are better or worse for us. Israel shouldn’t get involved in the internal affairs of democratic states in the same way they sometimes do with us,” one source told JTA.

Some European legislators had not respected that principle, he said, referring to an advertisement placed in the Israeli media recently in which a group of European lawmakers condemned Israel for its treatment of conscientious objectors in the army.

The Parliament, which meets in Brussels and Strasbourg, France, never has been known for its great voting record on Israel, but it reached new lows during its recent four-year term.

“The European Parliament over the last four years has continued the tradition of the last 15 years or so” in its relationship toward Israel, the secretary-general of the European Jewish Congress, Serge Cwajgenbaum, told JTA. “They have generally shown a lack of balance and they’ve certainly not been helpful in promoting peace and understandin! g in the Middle East.”

The Parliament has little influence on E.U. foreign policy, but often speaks out on behalf of Europe regarding various issues, including the Middle East.

Even an increase in support for the center-right in a number of key Western European states wouldn’t necessarily change things for the better, Cwajgenbaum said.

“A lot depends on the presidency of the Parliament, and on the work of the committees,” he said, adding that outgoing President Pat Cox has been “broadly friendly and showed a great deal of understanding on the issues that concern us.”

Israeli diplomatic sources in Brussels also praise Cox, who is not standing for re-election in his Irish constituency.

“We’ve disagreed many times but the key is that he doesn’t have double standards and he’s been prepared to engage in dialogue,” one source said. “It’s really about whether you choose to do diplomacy through dialogue or through a megaphone.”

The period before Cox became president was marked by a Parliament demand to suspend an agreement that ! gives Israel favorable trade relations with the European Union, Israel’s largest trading partner.

But Cox, who is an outside candidate for president of the European Commission, replacing Romano Prodi, is not the only friend Jewish groups will be losing from the Parliament.

French Socialist legislator Francois Zimeray, who led a parliamentary campaign for an investigation of alleged misuse of E.U. funds to the Palestinian Authority, wasn’t selected for his party’s list this time around. Likewise, German Green Ilke Schroeder, another frequent defender of Israel, won’t be returning to Strasbourg.

Schroeder, in particular, paid a high price for her pro-Israel positions, being virtually ostracized and denied allocation of speaking time in the legislature by her own political grouping.

On the other hand, one of Europe’s leading experts on anti-Semitism is almost certain to be elected: Patrick Gaubert, president of the International League Against Racism and Anti-Se! mitism, was chosen to run on the slate of France’s governing UMP Party . As head of the 12-member list for the region, Gaubert, who is Jewish, is virtually certain to be elected.

Given Israel’s problems with the three main left-wing groupings in the outgoing European Parliament, expected gains for the center-right ostensibly augur well for Israel’s supporters in Europe.

“Certain groups such as the Greens” and the Communist-dominated European United Left “have been getting more and more extreme in their statements condemning Israel,” one Israeli diplomat said.

More importantly, criticism of Israel also hardened among the principal opposition grouping of European Socialists in the last Parliament. Much will depend on the make-up of the new Socialist grouping after the elections, particularly on the composition of its leadership, diplomatic sources said.

“They have a problem with whatever is Bush and Sharon,” one Israeli diplomat said. “They’re happy to talk to one side in Israel — the left — but not to the elected government.” The European left is not the only source of concern for Jewish leaders.

With strong nationalist elements in some of the new countries entering the European Union, the far-right also could increase its representation in the Parliament to the point where it could form a political grouping — and receive official funding.

To do so, far-right groups from a minimum of five countries together would have to win at least 16 seats — a distinct possibility if the French and Belgium far-right joins with certain Eastern European groupings.

Far-right groupings — some of which engage in notoriously anti-Semitic discourse — are feeding anti-E.U. sentiment in some of the newer countries in the 25-member bloc. They’re expected to poll especially well in Poland and Hungary.

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