AMMAN - Irish Senator David Norris, who walked into the lobby of the Marriott Hotel in Amman, appeared perturbed. Norris, a member of the Irish parliament's foreign affairs committee, had just attended a lecture in the hotel for the delegation of 150 parliamentarians from Europe of which he is a member. The lecturer attacked Yasser Arafat. Norris was shocked. He declared heatedly that this was a public relations campaign and he would not allow the organizers to pull the wool over his eyes. A few hours earlier, Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom sounded most satisfied. "The upcoming visit of the delegation to Israel is another step in strengthening ties with Europe, to which I am devoting most of my time," he said in a telephone conversation. "The fact that a delegation like this has chosen to boycott Arafat during its visit is an indication that there has been some movement on the part of the Europeans lately," he added.
The Foreign Ministry is treating the visit of the 150 lawmakers - who represent the 15 EU countries, the 10 new members and the European Parliament - with the "appropriate excitement," as one senior official phrased it. "It is an impressive mass. There has never been a visit here of such a large multinational delegation of MPs. Some 70 percent have never been to Israel before and if they are able to see the reality from close up, it is possible that they will refrain from reciting the official positions of their countries," he said.
A conversation with Francois Leotard, a former French defense minister who is one of the heads of Med-Bridge, the strategic center that initiated the visit, throws some light on what Senator Norris was getting at. The average profile of the lawmakers in the delegation, so it seems, is not exactly that of someone who "recites his government's official positions."
The declared purpose of the organizers of the visit is to build a bridge between Europe and the Middle East and to shatter preconceived ideas. But Leotard, free of any diplomatic formalism, admits that, "at least from my point of view," this is a solidarity visit with Israel.
While the EU considers Arafat the elected leader of the Palestinian people, a leader with whom a dialogue is unavoidable, Leotard places sole responsibility for the failure of the Oslo process on Arafat, talks of the rampant corruption in the PA and calls for the establishment of a new reservoir of Palestinian leaders over whom the mythological "rais" will no longer hold sway.
At a time when the media in Europe widely describe the separation fence between Israel and the Palestinians as a "political wall" or an "apartheid wall aimed at assisting the burgeoning policy of preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state," Leotard is careful to use the Israeli terminology, "barriere" in French, and not "mur" or wall, he stresses. He won't swallow stories. "Those very European leaders who attack the barrier would erect one themselves if they were in the place of the Israeli prime minister who has to contend with horrific terrorist attacks," he says.
Leotard also has much to say about the French anti-Israel policy "to which all the French governments since 1967, right or left, adhered." In the same way that France erred when it attacked Israel for bombing the Iraqi reactor in 1981, so it has erred recently by attacking it for bombing a terrorist base in Syria. In view of this policy, do you wonder that [French President Jacques] Chirac is perceived as being anti-Semitic in Israel even though there is no basis to this?" he asks.
Leotard says of himself that he grew up on the Bible. Phrases like "If I forget thee, O Jerusalem" are locked in his heart. His strong sympathy for Israel also stems from the Holocaust. In his opinion, the Europeans have no right to preach. They should rather study their own history and look in the mirror. Asked whether he accepts the common wisdom in Europe that the recent attack on a military base at a settlement is a legitimate act on the part of an occupied people, he seems to take an even more rightist tack than Prime Minister Sharon: "I don't use those terms. The most serious oppressor of the Palestinian people was the Arab world itself."
Not all the lawmakers share Leotard's "Zionist fervor." The delegation also included critical politicians, but these appear to have been swallowed up in the waves of sympathy and understanding toward the Israeli government's policy.
During the interview, Shalom spoke of European leaders who had admitted to him that even today one photo-op with Arafat was enough to put up their popularity ratings. This was an indication of the gap that exists between most of the delegation members, and the decision-makers and the man-on-the-street in Europe. Despite the unprecedented information campaign to which the Foreign Ministry was a party, it is hard to imagine that the visit of those already convinced will be able to bridge this gap.
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