11th June 16:05
HOW EUROPE SEES KIKELAND?
Now Europeans see Israel as a threat to their existence
For the first time, moral critique and self defence have coincided
Friday November 7, 2003
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
spokesman 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
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 judgment 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
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 appea*****t 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