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In Wake of U.N. Vote, Israel Looks with Trepidation at United Europe

July 27, 2004
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If Israeli officials thought the accession of 10 new countries to the European Union would produce a more pro-Israel E.U. foreign policy, the recent U.N. General Assembly vote against Israel’s West Bank security barrier was a dose of cold water. Now some high-ranking Israeli officials fear the E.U.’s unanimous vote against the fence was a sign that an energized and united Europe will take a stronger stand than ever on Israeli-Palestinian affairs, and could even move the United States away from its traditional support for the Jewish state.

Calling the July 20 vote a watershed, these Israeli officials say a more confident and assertive Europe may pressure the next U.S. administration to impose a deal on Israel and the Palestinians. They also may impose economic sanctions on Israel or even back calls for a single binational Israeli-Palestinian state — one that, through simple demographics, would become a majority Arab state in a fe! w years time.

Other officials dismiss this scenario as far-fetched. They maintain that Israel’s close economic, scientific and cultural ties with Europe preclude the possibility of the union leading a campaign that could mean the end of the Jewish state.

But the Israeli establishment clearly has been rocked by the European vote, and is finding it difficult to assess its full significance.

When Javier Solana, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, arrived in Jerusalem a few days after the vote, Israeli leaders were scathingly critical. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said it would be difficult to incorporate Europe into any Israeli-Palestinian peace process unless it showed more sensitivity to Israel’s security needs.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said bluntly that he would find it difficult to convince the Israeli people that the European Union was a political partner they could trust.

But Solana brushed off the warnings. Standing at Shalom’s side, he declared co! nfidently: “We will be involved — whether you want us or not.”

Th e vote was the first major issue on which the enlarged European Union expressed unanimity. Solana sees the vote as paving the way for a more influential European role on the international stage.

The vote proves the union is a political bloc with a common foreign policy, he said in an interview with Ha’aretz, noting that even would-be E.U. members, like Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, had voted the same way.

This single, clear European voice is precisely what some Israeli officials fear. Until now, they note, Israel has been able to maneuver between E.U. countries with which it has closer ties, such as Germany and Britain, and countries that traditionally take a more pro-Palestinian line, such as France. If Europe continues to speak with a single voice, that kind of maneuvering may no longer be possible.

Some Israeli officials expect the worst: They predict the European Union will pressure whoever is elected U.S. president in November to exert more pressure on Israe! l to resolve the Palestinian conflict, and that either Bush or Kerry — seeking a Middle Eastern success to make up for the imbroglio in Iraq — may well be receptive.

The officials point out that unlike the United States — which if necessary will resort to unilateral action against “rogue states” — Europe sets great store by the application of international law. The officials fear this could be further exploited by the Palestinians, following up on their success against the fence in the International Court of Justice.

Beyond that, the officials fear that if there is no progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Europe may press for a single Israeli-Palestinian state, which quickly would have a Palestinian majority.

They note that the emerging generation of European elites has less empathy with Israel than their predecessors, and no Holocaust guilt, meaning they would have fewer reservations about joining a Palestinian-inspired campaign to delegiti! mize the Jewish state.

“We are losing the battle for legitimacy in Europe,” one official told JTA.

But other Israeli officials are less alarmist. They point out that, for now, the vision of independent Israeli and Palestinian states remains accepted throughout the international community, including the European Union.

Moreover, they say, bilateral ties with Europe are excellent: Israel is among a handful of non-European countries taking part in prestigious E.U. scientific projects like the development of the Galileo satellite.

And, they add, the European Union is seriously considering including Israel as one of the first members of “wider Europe,” a grouping incorporating peripheral states bordering Europe that will get trade and other concessions, in addition to those Israel already enjoys.

They also note that, despite its greater political cohesiveness, Europe is unlikely in the foreseeable future to wield as much political clout as the United States, which remains strongly supportive of Israel.

As for the security ba! rrier, these officials say the Europeans, even those less friendly to Israel, have promised that there will be no economic or other sanctions, no matter how the issue plays out in the United Nations.

They also point out that Solana repeatedly stressed Israel’s right to self-defense, and that E.U. opposition to the barrier was only to its route, which dips into the West Bank at points. The Palestinians seem to have convinced the Europeans that the West Bank should belong only to them.

Israel is taking steps to combat the U.N. vote against the fence, and to forestall an erosion of Israel’s international standing. The government has set up a team under Shavit Matias, a deputy attorney general, to address the legal implications of the July 9 ICJ ruling.

For one, Israel will argue that the fence route already is very different from the one the ICJ ruled on, and that it will change even further in accordance with rulings by Israel’s Supreme Court to lessen the fence’! s burden on Palestinians.

Israel also will assemble legal and poli tical arguments asserting that the fence is a legitimate defensive step, not an attempt to grab Palestinian land.

But officials on both sides of the argument over Europe agree that Israel’s trump card is Sharon’s disengagement plan. Pulling out of the Gaza Strip and part of the West Bank, they say, is the best way to convince the international community that Israel really intends to end its domination of the Palestinians and move toward a two-state solution.

This, they say, is Israel’s best chance of preempting European or other pressure down the road for a binational state.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.

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