How Europeans see Israel

Ever since its foundation, Israel has been troubled by the thought that it might have as much to fear from supposed friends as from avowed enemies. That is one reason why Israelis are often anxious monitors of public opinion in North America and Europe. Their anxiety, and perhaps their anger, showed a peak last week when the European Union’s polling organisation released figures showing that Europeans reckoned Israel was a greater threat to world peace than any other country.
The results reinforced the Israeli sense that the distance between them and the Europeans continues to grow and that the United States is their only reliable partner.

Most of the protests about the poll were disingenuous, since they were couched in terms suggesting that a sampling of public opinion somehow represents an act of European policy. But the poll itself was certainly suspect. The question 7 500 Europeans answered was too general. In particular, it left open whether the countries on the list were threats through grave fault of their own or, if they were, whether they shared that fault with another state or society with which they were in conflict. An EU spokesperson this week confirmed that the poll unit had no plans to ask that particular question again in the near future.

Flawed as the question was, and misdirected as some of the protests were, the poll results, nevertheless, do suggest—along with other evidence—that there has been a critical change in European perceptions of Israel. Europeans have, of course, always seen the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as a moral issue. They have also been conscious of it as springing, in part, from European acts in the past and, therefore, as being in some way a European responsibility. And they long ago grasped that it is a problem that affects European interests, whether those be good relations with Muslim governments, the loyalty of Europe’s own Muslim minorities, or the availability of oil at acceptable prices.

What is new since September 11 is that Europeans sense a threat to their existence, and not just to their interests. In the past, there were times at which it seemed possible that a nuclear exchange between the two cold-war blocs might be ignited by Middle Eastern events. But apart from those one or two bad moments when the cold war could have become hot, Europeans felt that, although their lives could be damaged as a result of what happened between Israelis and Palestinians, they could not be devastated.

Now, because there could be terrorist acts on a new scale, they sense that devastation is indeed a possibility. Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli minister and peace negotiator, sees that “Europeans fear a backlash from what happens between us and the Palestinians”, though he cautions against a view of the crisis that ignores its roots and the responsibility of the other party.

European fears may be overdone. There is also the complicated question of whether it is a correct reading of the terror threat to calculate that it would be either greatly or swiftly diminished by a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. But, viscerally, Europeans believe they would be much safer if there were such a settlement, and a majority probably believe that Israel is much more to blame for the lack of it than the Palestinians. Since European opinion was already running against Israel on other grounds, a coincidence of moral critique and self defence emerges.

This, it may be speculated, was what was really measured by the poll. Europe’s feeling of vulnerability and its alienation from Israel have been deepened by the difficult situation in Iraq; by the durability of the Sharon government; by the judgement that the Israeli right is likely to stay in power beyond Sharon; and by the American government’s feebleness and complicity in Israeli policies.

If a slice was cut to show what might be called the archaeology of European attitudes to Israel, the bottom layer, the furthest in the past, could be called “Saving Israel from the Arabs”, recalling a time when most sympathy lay with a newly independent state surrounded by enemies and when the plight of the Palestinians was hardly grasped.

A second layer could be entitled “Saving Israel from Itself”, representing the period when a victorious nation rejected advice to avoid expansion into the territories conquered in 1967.

A third would be “Saving the Palestinians from the Israelis”, as the Palestinians forced themselves into western visibility, first by terror and then by popular resistance. The title of a fourth era, the one we have now entered, has not yet been written by history. But it is characterised by a large magnification of the potential effect on the wider world of how the conflict works out. The French thinker Dominique Moisi, for example, argued recently that “Israelis and Palestinians are endangering much more than their lives and the lives of their children”.

When Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982, there was a condemnation of the action as “universal as any I can recall”, and perhaps greater than that directed at Israel today, says Professor Howard Sachar, an expert on European attitudes toward Israel at George Washington University. But it was unaccompanied then by any serious fear of what might happen on European soil. Sachar argues that Europe’s greater concern now should lead to a recognition that it “has a moral duty to impose a kind of template on the Middle East”, because “it is folly to depend on nudging two small entities toward an agreement. They have to be pushed.”

Moisi, too, believes in European pushing, suggesting a Nato presence in Jerusalem to force the pace, and at the same time bring Americans and Europeans back into a common project.

The Jerusalem Post ludicrously described the poll as indicative of Europe’s “profound intellectual and ideological malaise”. This assumes that because Europeans are more frightened about the possible consequences for themselves of events in the Middle East, they are unfairly and unthinkingly putting more of the blame on Israel. This is the appeasement of terror argument that Sharon deployed soon after September 11 when he said Israel had no intention of becoming another Czechoslovakia.

But if fear can sometimes lead to cowardly behaviour, it can equally sharpen the sense of what is just and what is sensible. Israel, in any case, will have to accept that it is properly subject to the rigorous scrutiny of those who may suffer, as much as Israelis themselves, the bad consequences of their decisions. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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