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At Center of Storm, Finnish Official Personifies E.u. Approach to Israel

October 4, 2006
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When Europe’s leaders met over the summer to discuss the Lebanon war, the person leading the criticism of Israel for its "disproportionate" response was a thin, bearded, bohemian-looking man who favors baggy corduroy jackets over gray suits — Finland’s foreign minister, Erkki Tuomioja. Finland holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Union and chairs all E.U. ministerial meetings through the end of the year. That puts Tuomioja in a position of unique influence to promote what critics complain is a strong anti-Israeli and anti-American bias.

Tuomioja, 60, illustrates many of the changes that have swept Finland and the rest of Europe over the past few decades and have led to a re-evaluation of Israel.

The Finnish minister comes from a family of politicians. His father, Sakari Tuomioja, was a prominent liberal Finnish politician. His grandmother on his mother’s side was Hella Wuolijoki, an Estonian-born writer and communist activist.

Asked about their foreign minister, many Finns respond that "he’s a ’68er." Like many left-leaning European students of his generation, Tuomioja came of age during the Vietnam War, seeing the U.S. as a militaristic danger. At the same time, the image of Israel, long seen as a plucky upstart, was morphing into that of an oppressor of the Palestinians after the Jewish state won the West Bank and Gaza Strip in the 1967 Six-Day War.

These 1968 ideas represented a break from the past for Finland, which long had been a faithful friend of the United States and Israel.

While seemingly so different in temperament, the stoic, Lutheran Finns and the emotional Israelis share many historical traits. Like Zionism, Finnish nationalism was rooted in a 19th-century rediscovery of language. Many 19th-century Finns changed their Swedish names to Finnish names, "a collective act of linguistic conversion comparable to the adoption of Hebrew by the Zionist settlers in Palestine," says Max Jakobson, a Finnish Jewish commentator who served as Finland’s ambassador to the United Nations during the 1960s.

In a more existential sense, Jakobson notes that Finns, like residents of "other small countries," fear the disappearance of their nation at any moment. In 1940, Russia almost wiped Finland off the map; Finns found themselves alone and had to defend themselves.

When Israel was created in 1948, Finns identified with Israel’s predicament. Finnish neutrality, designed to protect the country from Russia, meant keeping criticism of others to a minimum.

These inhibitions have faded since Finland’s entrance into the European Union in 1995. The prosperous country became comfortable and felt freer to criticize others, including Israel. Like other Europeans, Finland feels that problems should be solved through dialogue, not force — and that almost all wars are unjustified.

Tuomioja expresses these policies. After joining the Social Democratic Party, he became foreign minister in 2000 and is supported by President Tarja Halonen — who, reportedly, Tuomioja once dated. Together, the two have led resistance to bringing Finland into NATO, instead moving the country closer to the E.U.’s common foreign policy and to European public opinion, which is skeptical about Israel’s aims.

This summer, after Israel responded to Hezbollah’s cross-border raid and the capture of Israeli soldiers by launching attacks in Lebanon, Tuomioja said the Jewish state "has employed a disproportionate force, resulting in unnecessary loss of civilian lives and destruction of a civilian infrastructure." Attacks would not lead to the return of the kidnapped soldiers, Tuomioja said.

This month, with the Palestinians attempting to form a national unity government, Tuomioja saluted the attempt, saying "it allows us to break the deadlock" and restore E.U. funding to the Palestinian Authority.

The European Union cut off funds to the Palestinian Authority after Hamas took power in March, but Tuomioja said it wasn’t the right time to consider listing Hamas as a terrorist group.

If the Palestinians do succeed in forming a unity government, Tuomioja has expressed hope that full aid can be resumed. Such statements contradict U.S. policy, which was to support Israel’s retaliation in Lebanon and wait until Hamas renounces violence and accepts the Jewish state.

Tuomioja’s opinions may not be in synch with the European mainstream. At an E.U. foreign ministers’ meeting over the summer, he circulated an initial draft statement calling for an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon, but U.K. diplomats said the text — sprung on ministers without prior consultation — was "unacceptable."

Instead of an immediate cease-fire, the foreign ministers agreed on wording that called for "an immediate cessation of hostilities to be followed by a sustainable cease-fire."

The result underlines what some diplomats here see as Tuomioja’s crafty negotiating strategy: He starts with a radical position and then gives back a little, reaching a compromise that retains the essence of his thinking.

To be sure, Finland, like other European states, criticizes Arab aggression. As the E.U. president, Finland this month blocked an Arab-sponsored vote at the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna that would have labeled Israel’s nuclear capabilities as a threat.

But Finland’s six-month presidency of E.U. institutions ends at the end of 2006, and Israeli authorities are eager to see Germany take over the union’s helm.

"Thankfully, we won’t have to hear about Tuomioja after December," one Israeli diplomat says.

Maybe. Finland holds parliamentary elections next year, and a resurgent Russia could frighten Finns, move them toward NATO, make them more sensitive to Israeli fears and push Tuomioja from power.

Then again, Finland’s economy, led by the cell-phone giant Nokia, is booming and Tuomioja’s outspokenness may appeal to a confident nation. He might turn out to be not a relic from 1968, but the face of the new Europe.

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