"I thought it was part of the past," says Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt with a smile, referring to the attempt by some people in his country to put Ariel Sharon on trial for war crimes in their courts. The affair, which marred Israeli-Belgian relations and even caused Israel to recall its ambassador from Brussels, came to an end in August 2003 after Verhofstadt's government amended the relevant law and the court canceled the procedures against Sharon. When asked if he regretted the entire affair, Verhofstadt responded, "Michel [former foreign minister Louis Michel] apologized for it last year." And, in relief, he adds: "I am very pleased that abuse of the law, aimed originally at countries like Rwanda, is no longer possible. But it wasn't an anti-Israeli thing."
In Jerusalem, all agree that the affair is a thing of the past. The feeling here is that the relations between the two countries have warmed up during the last year. The death of Yasser Arafat, his replacement by Abu Mazen and Sharon's disengagement plan have all served to dispel the chill wind blowing from Brussels. But on the line stretching from Germany and Britain, considered very friendly to Israel - to Ireland and Sweden, considered very critical of Israel - Belgium is closer to France and tends more to the critical side. Thus, for example, Belgium sent a high-level delegation to Arafat's funeral in Cairo; this is the situation regarding Belgium's views on the separation fence and the status of the Hezbollah, too.
In an interview held this week on the eve of the inauguration of Yad Vashem's new historical museum in Jerusalem, Verhofstadt explains that this does not imply that Belgium seeks to undermine Israel's security or its very existence, and he rejects the claim that anti-Israel positions are a new form of anti-Semitism. Regarding those that have that feeling, he says: "That's international politics. To find a peaceful solution we have to try to pressure both sides to make an agreement. The important thing is to try and find a political agreement to create a safe Israel and, on the other side, a viable Palestinian state."
The phenomenon for him is very clear - and he has no difficulty identifying anti-Semitism. "If you attack Jews because they are Jews, you are an anti-Semite. When you're tackling and directly criticizing Israel or the Jewish community (in Belgium), that's anti-Semitism. If somebody starts to say that the Jewish state cannot exist, that's a form of anti-Semitism. That's very clear. But if you're talking about a discussion of the security fence, that's another discussion. If you have political discussions between politicians, that's another discussion. Otherwise you can't discuss anything at all about Israel."
Verhofstadt is not worried about anti-Semitic undertones filtering into the political discourse, and is convinced that the political decisions made in Belgium and the European Union are not influenced by hatred for Israel or Jews. In any case, any manifestation of anti-Semitism, he says, is one too many. Verhofstadt supports Israel's existence as a Jewish state, even if as a result some people - for example, Arabs - are discriminated against. "The Law of Return is the basic idea of the foundation of the State of Israel," he says, "that is, the idea that any Jew can come and immediately become a citizen."
Regarding discrimination against Arabs he says: "That's a question for internal lawmaking in Israel, but I think legislation like this exists already in other countries. It's not the monopoly of Israel."
Two key words
Verhofstadt continually repeats two words when speaking about Belgium. One is "eruption" - as in, "There is no eruption in Belgium"; "We must avoid eruptions, like in Holland" (where there were a series of violent acts that culminated with the murder of celebrated film director Theo van Gogh); and "We must prevent eruptions." The other word is "tolerance": There must be "education to tolerance," "tolerance toward [minority] communities," and "They, too, must exhibit tolerance." The first word is the threat, the second the cure.
Belgium and its prime minister have encountered in recent years a reality that has become increasingly complex, and that requires careful maneuvering between the large Muslim community and a growing extreme right. Like other European countries, Belgium too is trying to preserve its liberal lifestyle and at the same time protect itself from the social maladies threatening it, in addition to the threat of terror. Some 400,000 Muslims live in Belgium today. Some isolate themselves in ghettos, totally separate from general Belgian society. Some are Islamic fundamentalists calling for acts of jihad against the "infidels" and are involved in full-fledged acts of terror. On the other hand, the extreme-rightist Flemish party is growing ever stronger; it recently changed its name from Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc) to Vlaams Belang (Flemish Interest).
The party, which is vehemently opposed to immigration and whose slogan is "Flanders for the Flemings," is one of the strongest, extreme right-wing parties in Europe, if not the strongest. It won 18 percent of the vote in the last elections to the Flemish parliament, and recent polls have shown that it is the largest party in Flanders (Belgium's Flemish-speaking northern region), large than Verhofstadt's Flemish liberal party. In Antwerp, the largest city in Flanders, the party won one-third of the vote and the party chair, Filip Dewinter, could be the next mayor.
Verhofstadt is convinced that the extreme right is exploiting the people's fear of Islamic fundamentalism for his party's electoral needs. "It's the same in Denmark, in the Netherlands, France," he says. "In Brussels, like in all other cities in Europe, there are fundamentalists who are active and trying to incite young people to Islamic jihad. Europe is no different from the rest of the world."
Regarding the sense of insecurity in the streets of Belgium's larger cities due to rising crime, he notes: "If you compare the crime rates in Belgium with those of Paris, Amsterdam, London or Berlin, you can be sure that ours are very secure cities."
On the eve of Verhofstadt's visit to Israel, an article was published in Belgium that clearly explains the fear many Belgians harbor of the Muslim community. A reporter working for Belgium's Het Nieuwsblad spent a few weeks undercover in Molenbeek, a Brussels neighborhood home to Muslim immigrants and considered a hotbed of Islamic fundamentalism. She reported on virulent preaching for jihad in mosques, young people willing at any moment to murder "infidels," and statements that Belgium itself should not be harmed because it is convenient for Islamic fundamentalists and their activists to work from there.
The prime minister is not disturbed by these reports and counters by mentioning the activities taken by his government after it noted a rise in racially motivated violence, xenophobia and anti-Semitism in 2002: Legislation was changed, a number of terror networks were dismantled, 23 people were thrown in jail and, at present, another 120 cases of "terror activity" are being brought before the courts. The law- enforcement system has been beefed up and the intelligence services that deal with terror work as one.
Now, says Verhofstadt, the right steps are being taken: "There is always the danger of going too far. Where do liberties and democratic rights end and the fight against terror begin? It's a very difficult topic. We are doing what has to be done against fundamentalism, and to prevent eruptions in our society, because in the Netherlands, for example, people are being murdered. We try to be very tough on that, but also to prevent eruptions like other countries have."
The actions taken by Verhofstadt's government in recent years are also the answer to the growing strength of the right, he says. He hopes and wishes, as a politician, that instead of a continued increase in the strength of the extreme right, in the future, we will see it weakening. He made similar comments in this vein to Haaretz in November 2003, but so far, this has not been the case. On the other hand, he admits that the Muslims in Belgium are not integrated enough in Belgian society.
"We have no big problems with some communities, like the Turkish community. There are other communities with more difficulties. Only now, people are aware that these communities aren't as well integrated as we thought they were. That is the big problem. There are a number of initiatives to increase integration based on the acceptance of our values. There are a number of basic values that must be accepted by everyone. It will happen, but it takes time."
A surprising phenomenon in Belgium is the fact that Jews have been voting for the extreme-right party. This became evident in 2000 and increased in response to the many anti-Semitic outbreaks during Operation Defensive Shield in Jenin in the spring of 2002. Official figures on the extent of the phenomenon are unavailable, but one explanation for it is the helplessness many Jews felt in view of the government's impotence in dealing with the violence, on the one hand, and the firm hand proposed by Vlaams Blok against Muslim immigration, along with its consistent support for Israeli policy, on the other. However, the Vlaams Blok party has a problematic and checkered past: It is an offshoot of the Flemish Fascist Party, which collaborated with the Nazis in World War II. In recent years, one of its top members has come out with statements denying the Holocaust.
Says the prime minister: "This is not the big majority of the Jews. The Jewish community in Antwerp lives well, in safe circumstances, and enjoys a strong relationship with other communities and with the government."
Verhofstadt is considered to be a supporter of Jewish causes who makes sure to appear at Jewish community events. But it would appear that in this matter, he is taking the easy way out. The Herald Tribune recently had a front-page story on the rightward tendency of Jews in European politics, and pointed out that the most notable example is the Jewish vote for Vlaams Blok. The paper estimated that support at 5 percent of the Jewish vote, but this may be somewhat lower than the actual situation.
Many Jews, including a few from Verhofstadt's party, have come out in recent years against the "desertion of the Jews" by the political establishment and their abandonment to violence from Muslims. To their dismay, they note that only the extreme right is attentive to their distress.
Additionally, this vote has considerable symbolic and emotional significance that is greater than its electoral weight. Regarding the Jewish feelings of unease, Verhofstadt says: "We cooperate with the Jewish community, to provide maximum security. At the same time we have to educate our younger generation, also the immigrants, to be more tolerant."
When asked if this tolerance is working, he states: "We don't have eruptions."
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