Despite split on cease-fire, E.U.-Israeli ties stronger than ever



PRAGUE (JTA) — Despite public disagreements over the need for an immediate cease-fire, Israeli and European officials appear to be forging improved relations on several fronts.

European envoys have been rapidly shuttling through Middle Eastern capitals this week, fulfilling their traditional role as the humanitarian caretaker of the Palestinians by pledging $4.6 million in emergency aid. Also, in stark contrast to the U.S. view that a cease-fire should only be implemented if it meets Israeli security needs, European officials have been pleading for an immediate halt to Israeli military operations in the Gaza Strip.

Europe ”wants a cease-fire as quickly as possible,” French President Nicolas Sarkozy declared Jan. 5 in the West Bank city of Ramallah after meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

On the same day, however, Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni made clear to Sarkozy and other visiting European diplomats that her country’s military operation will end only when Israel has disabled Hamas’ rocket-launching capabilities.

Despite the gap between Israel’s actions and Europe’s pleas, an increasingly close political understanding is emerging between the two sides, even as massive pro-Palestinian demonstrations, sometimes tinged with anti-Semitism, sweep Europe.

Israel received a much desired upgrade last month to its official relationship with the European Union, providing the Jewish state with additional political and economic benefits thanks in part to a charm offensive by Livni, European diplomats told JTA. The new relationship may have softened Europe’s official rhetoric toward Israel when it began bombing Gaza on Dec. 27.

”During meetings in Jerusalem, it was mentioned many times that the message from the E.U. is now coming from a good friend, and it is being taken that way,” said Zvi Tal, deputy Israeli ambassador to the European Union in Brussels.

The initial E.U. rhetoric at the start of the Gaza conflict put the blame squarely on Hamas, which it has officially branded a terrorist group, for breaking a cease-fire with rocket attacks into Israel.

European leaders, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel, told Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert by phone that the responsibility for the conflict lies “clearly and exclusively” with Hamas. Merkel demanded that Hamas “immediately and permanently” stop its rocket attacks on Israel.

Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, representing the European Union, emphasized that Israel had a right to defend itself, whereas ”Hamas has excluded itself from serious political dialogue.”

Robin Shepherd, a senior research fellow at the London-based Chatham House think tank, said he sensed a softer approach by European leaders to Israel.

”Israeli public diplomacy in advance of the assault was well prepared,” he said. ”Israel made sure European leaders knew way in advance that any country would have the need to stop rocket attacks.”

Livni in particular has spent more time engaging European leaders than her predecessors, Tal observed.

Her rapport with Sarkozy and French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner on a Dec. 31 trip to Paris was unusually warm, with smiles and kisses even as she said there would be no cessation of bombing.

She has much to smile about regarding the upgrade in relations with the European Union. The upgrade means Israel will be at the table as an observer during E.U. political deliberations.

”Especially in the area of security and defense, Israel and the E.U. will become close partners, which will be profitable for both sides,” said Adam Mouchtar, the director of the European Union Affairs Office for B’nai B’rith International in Brussels.

At the inaugural European Union Summit with Israel in June, top European and Israeli leaders will address areas of mutual political and economic interest.

Jana Hybaskova, the head of the European Parliament’s Israel committee, believes the longstanding cliche of a frustrated European-Israeli diplomatic battle has come to an end.

”The upgrade is a green light for rapprochement,” she said. ”So, of course, when the bombing started there was an understanding that Israel has certain recognizable rights for security.”

The European Union’s more empathetic expressions of support for Israel have been undermined to some degree by the inability of the 27-country bloc to speak with one voice, a longstanding obstacle in its efforts to mediate conflicts in various parts of the globe.

The Czechs, widely perceived as staunchly pro-Israel, took over the rotating six-month presidency of the European Union Jan. 1 from France, but Sarkozy is still dominating the E.U.’s Middle East peace efforts.

Three  separate E.U. missions to the Middle East were scheduled simultaneously, a move critics like Hybaskova say showed a serious lack of coordination. Schwarzenberg’s delegation included Kouchner, Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt representing the future E.U. presidency and E.U. External Affairs Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner.

They held talks in Cairo with Egyptian diplomats, followed by meetings in Jerusalem with Israeli leaders. They then met up with Sarkozy in Ramallah for the meeting with Abbas and Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

In addition, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, who represents the diplomatic Quartet of the European Union, United Nations, United States and Russia that oversees the Mideast peace process, also has been touring the region.

With so many people speaking for the European Union, it should not be surprising that somewhat conflicting statements have been offered by foreign ministers of member nations. 

The Czechs, in a major diplomatic error, first issued a statement declaring that the Israeli ground attack was a ”defensive, not offensive move,” which Schwarzenberg was forced to admit was released mistakenly by an inexperienced government spokesman. 

In place of the retracted statement, the Czechs declared,  “Launching land operations by the Israeli forces in the Gaza Strip is not surprising; there were indications that Israel had been considering this step. But even the indisputable right of the state to defend itself does not allow actions which largely affect civilians.”

The statements issued from other European countries after the ground invasion were harsher .

The French Foreign Ministry described the ground invasion as a “dangerous military escalation” and British Foreign Minister David Miliband said ”the escalation of the conflict will cause alarm and dismay.”

Some observers — noting the massive rallies being held by Muslims in European countries, including France, Britain and Belgium, and the fact that public opinion in Europe is far more skeptical toward Israel than it is in the United States — predict that European politicians will be issuing tougher condemnations of Israel’s military operation in Gaza.

”Looking at the latest remarks, I can sense already a slight change in what initially was a much more supportive attitude,” Tal said. 

In France, which has the largest Muslim population in Europe, 21,000 pro-Palestinian protesters marched in Paris on Jan. 3. Some demonstrators burned Israeli flags, torched cars and vandalized several shops. Two days later, a burning car was used to damage a synagogue in Toulouse. 

Protests in Antwerp turned violent, as members of the Arab European League tried to enter a Jewish neighborhood in the Belgian city and clashed with police, breaking car windows and smashing trams and buses. On Monday in the Belgian capital of Brussels, the police arrested protesters for carrying Molotov cocktails.

The marches by Palestinian sympathizers have featured swastikas and chants in favor of Hamas, Hezbollah and jihad, or holy war. 

Jewish groups have taken to the streets in peaceful support of Israel, but their numbers have been much smaller, at least partly a result of their smaller overall numbers in Europe compared to Muslims.

Tal, the deputy Israeli ambassador to the European Union, worries that if anti-Semitic violence in Europe escalates, it will be a serious setback for the political progress Israel and Europe have made. 

”In that case,” he said, “it would be hard to convince the average Israeli that the European attitude has changed for the better.”

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