"Israel must view a change in its relations with Europe as a vital strategic goal," wrote Shlomo Ben-Ami ("It won't work without Europe," Haaretz, August 17). "We must break the disputatious cycle (with Europe) and clear a new path," Aluf Benn wrote a day later ("A political fence in Europe," Haaretz, August 18).
Some view the recent changes in the European Commission (EC), the European Union's executive arm, as an opportunity to change Israel's relations with Europe and forge a new path. Those who share this opinion, including academics and Foreign Ministry officials, recognize friendly faces in the new EC. The new leadership, according to these pundits, will be more attentive to Israel's strategic needs. Some reasons for this:
l The EC's new president, Jose Manuel Barroso: He is virtually unknown outside Portugal, where he served as prime minister until now. He burst into the CNN and the international media limelight when he hosted the historic Azores Summit that immediately preceded the war in Iraq. He is considered to be a "sworn Atlanticist," and many believe he will instill a new atmosphere in the EC. His statements regarding Israel were described as "balanced" and even "positive" by the Israeli embassy in Lisbon and the Portuguese Jewish community.
l A weaker "Old Europe": Upon the appointment of the new commission, it was hard to avoid recollections of Jacques Chirac's outburst against candidate nations that later joined the EU. "They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet," Chirac lashed out when these nations declared their support for the American war in Iraq. Whereas the nations that supported President Bush - Britain, Italy, Poland, Spain, the Netherlands and Denmark - all received choice appointments, France must now make do with the minor transport portfolio. Germany received the vital industry portfolio that, nonetheless, fell short of their expectation to receive the "super-economic" post they had asked Barroso to tailor for them.
l "Friends in the East": The accession of the East European representatives to the commission is also viewed positively in Jerusalem. These are considered pro-Israeli, with some even enthusiastically so. Dr. Sharon Pardo, a lecturer in European Union matters at Ben-Gurion University, attributes special importance to the appointment of former Czech prime minister Vladimir Spidla as employment and social affairs commissioner, who will also be responsible for the fight against anti-Semitism in Europe.
l "Friends in the West": Loss of French and German influence in the EC is mainly reflected in the EU's enlargement and in institutional reforms: The larger nations are now represented by one commissioner instead of two. Nevertheless, Jerusalem expressed satisfaction with the fact that the Italian commissioner and the British commissioner were appointed by Berlusconi and Blair, defined as "Israel's best friends in Europe." Jerusalem is particularly pleased that the EU, Israel's main trading partner, appointed Peter Mandelson, a British Jew, as trade commissioner.
l The disappearance of "the bad guy": Jerusalem breathed a sigh of relief when Briton Chris Patten, defined here as "the symbol of anti-Israel sentiment in the EU," failed to be appointed as commission president. The relief turned into smiles when it became known that Patten, who had been responsible for external relations, would be replaced by Austrian Benita Ferrero-Waldner, an architect of normalization of relations between Israel and Austria.
The analysis presented here ignores several important issues. First, even those defined as "friends of Israel" in Europe do not support the policies of the Sharon government. The differences between EU members are minor: While Israel's "enemy" Patten consistently rejected imposing sanctions on Israel, Israel's "friend" Mandelson has made public statements suggesting that neither Sharon nor Arafat are deserving of their positions and that both should be replaced.
Second, despite the "pro-Israel" stand of the eastern nations, the UN vote on the route of the separation fence indicates that when these nations are called upon to support the EU flag, they adopt a Eurocentric line.
Finally, and most importantly, the EU's dominant institution is still the European Council, which represents the member states, and not the commission, whose role is to implement the council's policy.
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