Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Israel, Europe and the future.

By Ami Isseroff


The star of America may be declining, and American policy toward Israel will probably be less friendly in the future than it has been of late (see The future of US-Israel Relations). These issues are not directly related to the announced stands of current presidential candidates, though the emergence of Barack Obama as the Democratic party candidate for president has underlined the problem. The choice of Obama, after all, tells us something about how Americans view Israel. His rhetoric is designed to appeal to the American public.

Obama didn't succeed by saying things people don't want to hear. When he speaks about Israel, he speaks for America, as does John McCain, who says about the same thing, in more Republican language. Americans are fond of Israel, but not its settlements. No American administration has ever backed Israeli claims to Jerusalem, much less the Golan or the West Bank.

Most Americans, especially policy makers, think Arabs are only angry about the occupation, producing a conflict which is a "sore" that can be eliminated by ending the occupation. History for them began with the Six Day War. The American Middle East dream since that war has been to engineer a peace settlement by getting Israel to give up territory, after which everyone will live happily ever after, with the US enthroned as the leading power in the Middle East. Never mind the reality of history before 1967, when there was no occupation. Americans don't really really "get" organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah and did not see the danger of letting Hamas participate in Palestinian elections. That was not Obama who did that, it was the Bush administration that so loves Israel. More harm is often done out of ignorance than out of hate.

But whatever the attitude of the United States toward Israel, it is certain that US influence in the Middle East is on the wane. I have often noted the problematic dependence of Israel on the United States (see for example The United States Mandate for Palestine) We are not the economic disaster area that we were when we obtained massive US aid following the peace with Egypt. As the years go by, the dollar value of the aid remains the same, but the real value has shrunk considerably and its proportion in the Israeli budget keeps shrinking. Increasingly, it becomes a liability that prevents us from entering a multilateral world and makes Israel vulnerable to cheap political attacks in the United States. Isn't it absurd that the country with the strongest currency in the world is still receiving billions of dollars of US charity each year? There is more to sovereignty than annexing this or that bit of territory and there is more to independence than grousing about US pressure and advocating "in your face" politics. If we want to be independent, we have to show we can be independent, rather than acting out like disturbed teenagers who continue to live off the family largess. Israel is of age. We need to go out into the world and 'seek our fortune.'

Israel will have to diversify its allies and trading partners, an imperative that has already been noted by others, and which Israel is doing something about (see here for example). A big part of the future alliance has to be the European Union. But if Americans don't "get" the Middle East, it seems equally true that Israel and its supporters don't "get" Europe entirely. They see Europe through sometimes distorting glasses - distorted both by past history and by American views of Europe. Robin Shepherd provides an example of the sort of thinking about Europe that typifies many supporters of Israel. To a great extent it is true or half true, but it doesn't help us much.

Certainly many European radicals are anti-Zionist and perhaps anti-Semitic. But European governments are not run by the Red Army faction or even Ken Livingstone. Certainly Europeans are not enthusiastic about Israeli nationalism. But lecturing Europeans on their failings is not going to solve our problems with them, and neither with hoping for a re-emergence of European nationalism. The European right is not characterized by love of Jews necessarily, and betting on a return to nationalism in Europe is probably betting on the wrong horse. When Europe understands the threat posed by Jihadist radicals, the response will have to be made by a more or less unified "European nation" - and that is precisely how the threat is seen by many - as a threat to European values.

We also must take into account that an increasing number of Europeans ARE Muslims themselves, and that Turkey may be eventually a part of the European union. Israeli policy and the quest for allies must be based on what exists and will exist, not on what he think ought to exist. In every situation, there is a way for astute statecraft to create opportunities, if the situation is understood.

Alliances are based on needs and common interests. If Israel wants European support, it must position itself to be useful to Europe and it must demonstrate to Europeans that it is useful and show that we have common interests, rather than delivering sermons on the foibles of radicals and the resurgence of anti-Semitism. Of course Israel has enemies in Europe, and of course cynical, Machiavellian and defeatist politics have been part of the European scene for a few centuries, and of course anti-Semitism has been indigenous to Europe for even longer. But we also have friends, and we must be sensitive to changes. Jacques Chirac is gone and even if Mr Sarkozy does not have a bright political future, it is doubtful if another Chirac will return. Italy has just elected a friendly government. Germany is consistently supportive of Israel, and in Germany we have strong intellectual spokesmen and advocates for the Jews and Israel like Matthias Kuntzel. Even those who disagree with Israeli policies, like Miguel Moratinos, are basically supportive of Israel. We should not be lumping all Europeans together into a demonic stereotype of Ulrika Meinhof, Carlos the terrorist and the UK UCU with its perennial Israel boycott motions. We need to preserve some proportion - the latest boycott motion was condemned by the UK education minister. We must be aware of the problematic nature of European attitudes to Israel and the alarming rise of anti-Semitic manifestations, but we need to stop waving our arms and yelling "gevalt!" We must focus on finding allies and on changing the situation.

Should we, for example, be providing the European security establishments with our expertise and contacts in fighting terrorism, a problem that will loom larger and larger in the European consciousness if our understanding of Islamism is correct? Can we interest Europeans in opportunities to improve their armaments by applying battle-tested Israeli solutions? Can we, for example, trade more European leverage and influence in the peace process for a more balanced and rational European approach to the Middle East? Can we also make Israel a convenient gateway for Europeans who want to trade with India, China and Asia, and vice-versa?

The task of statecraft is not to bemoan a bad reality, but to see the means to change it and make it work to your advantage. In the past, the Zionist movement was skilled in seeing opportunities even in disastrous situations, and using them to gain advantages even when our numbers were few and our real influence was negligible. The Zionist movement is no longer a group of penniless and eccentric Eastern European intellectuals, as it was when it obtained the Balfour declaration. Israel is no longer a collection of unarmed farmers and refugees as it was when we obtained recognition from both the United States and the USSR in 1948. The IDF is no longer based on a junkyard mixture of surplus B-17s and superannuated Sherman tanks as it was when we obtained British and French cooperation in the Suez Campaign, and French cooperation in building a nuclear reactor. The "bad guys" of Europe will probably be there for a long time to come. They are only influential and important if we let them be so. A lot of their power arises from the overly close bilateral relations that Israel cultivated with the United States, and the desire of European governments to ensure their place in the sun of the Middle East. We can change that, and we won't necessarily lose our American friends by seeking additional ones. Quite the contrary - alliances are stimulated by competition.

Israel can survive and prosper if we assert our independence in constructive ways, use our strengths and demonstrate our worth to potential allies rather than moralizing and bemoaning the errors of European intellectuals.

Ami Isseroff


Original content is Copyright by the author 2008.

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