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European Jews Give Tentative Nod to Possible European Commission Head

July 14, 2004
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European Jewish officials don’t know too much about how the prospective new head of the European Commission views the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. As the agreed candidate of the E.U.’s 25 countries to head the bloc’s vast executive branch, Jose Manuel Durao Barroso of Portugal is prime minister of a country with traditionally friendly ties to Israel. Durao Barroso himself is widely regarded as a committed Atlanticist.

Pending approval by the European Parliament on July 20, Durao Barroso will begin a two-year term as commission president in the fall, replacing Romano Prodi, who is returning to Italy to lead the country’s center-left opposition.

Overall Jewish reaction to Durao Barroso’s appointment has been positive, with one senior Brussels-based Jewish official describing Durao Barroso as “certainly the least bad of all the possible candidates.”

That remark reflects a certain relief ! among Jewish groups that E.U. member states didn’t appoint someone with a more biased approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But it also marks a general lack of evidence about Durao Barroso’s views on the subject, on which he rarely has commented publicly.

As one Israeli Foreign Ministry source familiar with Portuguese affairs pointed out, Durao Barroso generally has been even-handed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, mostly limiting himself to calling for an end to all violence, even when other European leaders directed their criticism toward Israel.

“We hope he’ll bring new winds to the European Union, for balance and more understanding of the Israeli position,” the source told JTA.

Last month, following long deliberations among E.U. leaders, Durao Barroso emerged as the principal center-right candidate, overtaking Luxembourg’s prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, and Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt.

Other possible candidates, such as Brita! in’s Chris Patten — the E.U.’s outgoing external affairs commissioner and a forceful critic of Israel — also dropped by the wayside as E.U. heads searched for a candidate acceptable to all 25 member states.

As a former foreign minister, Durao Barroso is familiar with the Middle East, has visited Israel and has avoided the sometimes heavy-handed criticism some European leaders adopt toward Israel’s anti-terrorist actions.

According to Ester Muchnik, vice president of the Lisbon Jewish community and a commentator in the Portuguese press, Durao Barroso is known for his “correct” positions regarding Israel and his country’s Jews.

He also likely would help steer the European Union toward a more balanced stance on the Middle East and better ties with the United States, she said.

“I have never heard him say anything bad about Israel,” Muchnik said in a telephone interview.

“Relations with us have been very friendly,” she added, noting that before his appointment in Brussels, Durao Barroso had accepted an invitation to attend the ! centennial of Lisbon’s main synagogue later this year.

Durao Barroso’s friendliness toward the Jewish community also reflects a certain pride Portugal takes in its Jewish past. Portuguese President Jorge Sampaio refers regularly to his Jewish origins.

Portugal has very little recent history of anti-Semitism, and its fascist dictatorship during World War II refrained from adopting anti-Jewish legislation.

Moreover, according to Jean-Yves Camus, a Paris-based political scientist specializing in European anti-Semitism, “Portugal is one of the very rare countries in Europe, and perhaps the only one, where today there is no problem with anti-Semitism.”

That may explain why Durao Barroso “has not really expressed any views on the subject in the past, but there should be no reason why he would not be forceful on the issue” in his new role, Camus said.

Jewish groups in Europe also point to Durao Barroso’s alignment with the Bush administration in supporting the! US-led invasion of Iraq.

For the moment, the pro-U.S. line remain s the main basis for the optimistic view Israel’s supporters in Europe have of Durao Barroso.

“We don’t really know him,” an Israeli diplomatic source in Brussels said, “but if I had to go with the press reports I have of him, this is someone from the European center-right who is generally pro-American. That’s usually a good basis for us.”

Similar reaction came from the Paris-based European Jewish Congress.

The group’s secretary general, Serge Cwajgenbaum, said he knew “very little” about Durao Barroso, “although the views we have collected from the Portuguese Jewish community have been generally positive.”

Cwajgenbaum noted Portugal’s traditionally strong foreign policy links to Britain and the United States, which often have set it at odds with its larger neighbor, Spain.

Portugal also has had only very loose ties with the Arab world, preferring to concentrate its foreign policy statements on links with Brazil and its former colonies in sub-Saharan Afri! ca.

The choice of a candidate with such broad Atlanticist credentials would have been unusual were it not for Durao Barroso’s ability to build ties to other European leaders.

While he generally has been supportive of U.S. policy in the Middle East, he has avoided the more confrontational approaches of leaders such as Spain’s former prime minister, Jose Maria Aznar, and Italy’s prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi.

Durao Barroso has come a long way politically since his days as a law student at the University of Lisbon, where he was a Maoist party leader during the 1974-75 revolution that overthrew the Salazar dictatorship.

Gradually becoming more centrist, he led Portugal’s center-right Social Democrats to power in 2002, though the country currently is in difficult economic conditions.

Some E.U. observers believe the commission job could provide Durao Barroso with the perfect opportunity to escape his country’s woes.

“There are people who want political ! stability and think he should have stayed because our economy is not g ood right now,” Muchnik said, “but I think it’s right that he accepted the appointment, because it will help give visibility to our small country.”

(JTA Correspondent Jerome Socolovsky in Madrid contributed to this story.)

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