An important goal of the new government to be formed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon must be the rehabilitation of relations with Europe, which have deteriorated greatly over the past two years. Israel has important interests in the Old World: The European Union is Israel's main trading partner, and its positions influence Israel's international legitimacy, while it tries to become part of the West. There has been damage in both areas, which increases the longer the conflict with the Palestinians continues to be at a dead end.
Former foreign minister Shlomo Ben Ami [Labor], who dropped in for Election Day from his sabbatical in England, warns that Israel's image in Europe must not permanently become that of an outcast nation. A senior Norwegian official, who visited Israel this month, told Israeli colleagues: "Your status in our country has been erased." In Sweden they published a call to boycott Israel, and the list goes on. The attacks on Israel come from the two political poles, the xenophobics of the extreme right and the bleeding hearts among the human rights advocates of the left. From there, they spread to the center.
Israel tends to dismiss European criticism as an expression of anti-Semitism, which is presumably a part of the European makeup. It's easy to explain that the Holocaust happened a long time ago, and the new generation has fewer restraints. There is hatred of Jews in Europe, and it's important to condemn it, but the fight against anti-Semitism is no substitute for practical statesmanship, especially it if masks the real problem: Europeans profoundly reject the Israeli occupation of the territories. They see it as an oppressive reminder of their own colonialism, and blame it for Palestinian terrorism.
The Copenhagen Declaration from the leaders of the EU, which was published last month, placed the primary responsibility for the continuing violence on Israel. The Europeans hate the settlements and are angry about the destruction of infrastructure in the Palestinian Authority, in which they invested billions of dollars.
The source of European criticism is not only over-sensitivity to human rights, or the channeling of growing hostility toward the United States to the "little Satan." The Europeans are afraid that the backlash from the Middle East will ignite the growing Muslim minority, will flood their shores with immigrants, and will cause their cities to be swept up in a wave of terror. That is why they want quiet and influence in the region. When Israel rejects their involvement, they come back via an indirect route. That is how they created the Quartet [the EU, the United States, the UN and Russia] and led the Bush administration to formulate the "road map," which is putting Sharon under pressure.
The prime minister, who is almost persona non grata in Europe, dismisses the subject by saying that the Europeans are "too biased," and are unsuited for mediating the conflict. Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called for Israel to be allowed to join the EU, but because of his continuing silence, his words have been left hanging in the air. Minister Dan Meridor, who is formulating Sharon's political program, believes that we cannot make light of the Europeans, and that Israel can bring about a change in their position.
Europe rewarded Israel for the Oslo Agreements by upgrading the economic agreement, by including it in research and development programs, and by granting it "special economic status." These gestures are now in danger. The danger is not necessarily official sanctions. Great Britain placed a "soft embargo" on Israel involving military equipment, without announcing it. Governments could give silent backing to a boycott against Israel by companies and universities, place obstacles in the way of carrying out agreements, and enforce the "source rules," which will impose duties on products from the settlements. Of course if a right-wing government is established, these steps will be introduced more quickly.
Europe is not lost, and it has not yet given up on Israel. Sharon's statement "The Quartet is nothing," went over quietly, as an election ploy, as did the refusal to allow a Palestinian delegation to go to London for talks.
But the condition for an improvement in relations is political progress vis-?-vis the Palestinians that looks more credible and more convincing than Sharon's declarations to date. Insistence on dismantling the Quartet, and pushing the Europeans into a political corner, will only intensify the crisis in relations and the damage to Israel.
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