European Commission President Urges Israel Not to Neglect Palestinian Peace Process Despite Iran Threat

Israel is the strong side while the Palestinians feel humiliated, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso tells Haaretz.

Edmond who? Monday evening, the president of the European Commission had not yet been briefed about the bombshell dropped by retired Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy concerning the illegal settler outposts in the West Bank.

Jose Manuel Barroso is a serious statesman. He will not comment on a report he has not yet read. Still, after he gets a brief explanation about the report's implications, it is incumbent on the diplomat who heads the executive body of the 27 states of the European Union, and who is one of the most important leaders on the continent and in the international community as a whole, to respond.

Here, then, in an interview with Haaretz, are the comments which will define the next line of confrontation between the international community and the government of Israel, if it decides to adopt the report of the Levy advisory committee.

Barroso: "The settlement policy is making it difficult to establish a democratic and sustainable Palestinian state which will be able to live in peace with Israel. Besides the great importance which we attach to the legal aspect and to international law, our position is that every policy and development that tries to create facts on the ground and is hindering the establishment of peace is a mistaken policy. That is a clear stance which is unequivocal: The illegal settlements must be brought to an end."

As it happens, these remarks were made after a demonstration of sincere friendship for Israel, at times bordering on adoration. Barroso, who is from Portugal and is making his first visit to Israel and the territories in his capacity as EC president, notes that he has known Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for many years ("since 1988, when we both served as deputy foreign ministers").

It is a source of pride for him that Europe is Israel's largest trading partner. ("Trade between us stands at 30 billion euros a year and represents a third of all of Israel's trade.") He is excited about the unusual partnership with "the start-up nation" in the realm of science and technology. ("Israel is one of the only countries outside Europe that enjoys our immense
research budgets.")

And he promises to continue to promote bilateral relations with Europe. Indeed, Barroso declares he is against the linkage which has developed in Europe between upgrading relations with Israel and progress in the peace process. "I do not like to speak in terms of setting conditions," he says.

However, on this issue he is alone. As a senior Israeli source notes: "We have opposite agendas. Israel is talking about Iran, about the Islamist trend in the region and about Syria. It is leaving the Palestinians at the bottom of the list. But on the European agenda the Palestinians are at the top. In their lexicon they will constantly play up the terms 'territories,' 'settlements' and 'Area C.'"

The slogan "more for more" which Europe uses in its dialogue with other countries assumes special meaning in the Israeli context. Netanyahu's "If they give, they will get" has been overturned, from their perspective: "You want upgraded relations? Give us a peace process." Until then, the European Parliament will continue to block the ratification of agreements aimed at bringing about the coveted upgrading.

Barroso is aware of this, of course. The European Parliament represents continental public opinion, to which he is committed. "The concern in Europe is genuine," he says. "The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has gone on too long. I was in Ramallah and I am aware of the difficulties of dialogue. But Palestinian President [Mahmoud] Abbas and Prime Minister [Salam] Fayyad, with whom I held very open talks, really and truly want peace with Israel. I have no doubt about that. We must take advantage of this opportunity."

Barroso wants to utilize his friendship in order to help Israel help itself. Only by doing that will he be able to promote its interests in Europe. "Israel is the strong side in the conflict, whereas the Palestinians feel humiliated," he says. "But the status quo will not be able to continue indefinitely. In order to avert flare-ups, generous steps must be taken to bring peace. Peace is a tremendous value. It is also important for Israel's image as a vibrant
democracy, which does not rest on what is perceived as injustice toward the Palestinians. I am aware that this is not at the moment the highest priority in Israeli public opinion, but there is an urgent need for leadership and for strategic wisdom."

The indispensable continent

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the president of the EC in the management of the continent. Dispensing with the EU's bureaucratic jargon, we can say that Barroso, as head of the continental executive, is something like the "prime minister of Europe." The two EC presidents who preceded Barroso in office were both tainted by scandal. One, Jacques Santer of Luxembourg, was forced to resign in the wake of what was termed "the most
serious corruption affair in the history of the EU." The other, Italy's Romano Prodi, was accused of inflicting grave harm on the EU's image by inviting former Libyan ruler Muammar Gadhafi to visit Brussels.

Barroso is only the third EC commissioner in the history of the European Union to serve two consecutive terms. Observers in Europe describe him as an intelligent, sharp-tongued, crafty politician. However, it is also argued that with the colossal economic crisis afflicting the continent, new ideas, great initiatives and extraordinary vision are needed. "Barroso is not cast in that mold. He doesn't have the courage that's needed here," says a senior diplomat
in Brussels.

Barroso himself, smiling and affable as a captain sailing on a calm sea, objects to all the apocalyptic forecasts being applied to his supposedly sinking ship. To begin with, he is proud of the high, influential status Europe now enjoys in the international arena. "I was Portugal's foreign minister in the early 1990s. At that time, the EU had 12 members. At present there are 27, and very soon 28, and I can say that today there is not a single important decision made in the world in which Europe does not play a central role," he says.

Barroso is perfectly aware of the weaknesses of Europe, which lacks the features of a nation-state, but says confidently: "We are the largest economic and trading power in the world. Sixty percent of the aid to the developing countries in the world comes from the EU. Nothing can be done in the global arena without Europe.

In questions relating to the struggle against global warming, the European stance is the most progressive, and on issues of human rights and many other issues, we carry far more weight today. The agenda that is accepted by the G-8 or the G-20 is in large measure the agenda proposed by Europe. In all the contacts I have with the Americans, the Russians and the
Chinese, it turns out that nothing is possible without us."

But Barroso goes much farther. He may be said to lack vision, but he forecasts that the current storm will end with a rainbow, whether it is called a "European federation" or "political union" or any other term that reflects a supra-national utopia: the dream of realizing a "United States of Europe."

"Paradoxically," Barroso says, "the crisis is leading to the strengthening of the integration movement in Europe. No one is discussing the discarding of the euro, but the opposite. We are discussing the establishment of a fiscal union and a banking union, which will have a common overseer. Those moves will complete the economic and monetary union which already exists and ultimately lead to the establishment of true political union."

Barroso says he is "completely realistic," adding: "True, it is a process which will take time. We still have difficult problems for which there are no magic solutions, and not all the members of the EU will be part of the political union, just as not all of them are now part of the monetary union. But the integration in the EU, and particularly in the euro zone, has deepened in the past two years in a manner which was inconceivable until a short time ago. Thanks to our activities today, in the future the EU will be stronger and more unified."

As an example of the clout that Barroso attributes to Europe in the international arena even now, he mentions the sanctions regime which was imposed by the EU on Iran and came into effect last week. "This is the toughest sanctions regime to be imposed on Iran, and the fact is that all 27 member states agreed on it, including Greece, which stopped importing oil from
Iran despite the serious economic crisis it is experiencing," he says.

He adds that third parties which were affected by the sanctions indirectly for example, in cases where insurance companies were prohibited to insure the supply of oil tried to pressure the EU into moderating the sanctions, but without success. Asked how Europe will react in the case of an Israeli attack on Iran in the near future, he says he has set himself a rule "never to comment on hypothetical situations."

He says he is committed to the attempt to resolve the crisis by diplomatic means, but does not express explicit opposition to an attack should these measures fail. He "understands perfectly Israel's fears concerning Iran. After all, it was the president of Iran who declared that Israel should be wiped off the map."

Rise of the far-right

Indeed, if there is an issue on which Europe gets a rare round of applause from Israel, it is for the continent's resolute posture on the Iranian nuclear project. However, two interconnected developments are also making Europe a continent reviled by many in Israel.

On the one hand, it is claimed, Europe is "being taken over by the battalions of Islam, which will change its face unrecognizably," while at the same time this "Islamic conquest," combined with the economic crisis, is giving rise to a situation in which small, vocal protest parties, in some cases on the lunatic fringe and in others racist and anti-Semitic, are growing in size and jolting the large, established traditional parties.

Barroso tries to be reassuring. "The appearance of radical Islam is far more characteristic of your region than it is of Europe," he says. His formula is based on what he calls the "democratic chain of culture," by which he means integrating the Muslims into European society. That integration "will not be coerced but will be based on respect for the human dignity of the other."

The political radicalization appears to worry him far more. He speaks of "ugly nationalism that manipulates people's emotions and fans hatred, suspicion of the stranger, discrimination against those who are different and all the phenomena which are completely contrary to the principles of the European Union."

Barroso sees this as a global phenomenon ("Look at the Tea Party in the United States, for example") and recalls that every idea of European integration is intended to forge "a project of peace that will prevent the recurrence of the wars of the past."

Moreover, he says, "The continent is now ruled by established democratic parties and by a very strong culture of democracy." In any event, he says, the EC that he heads is vigilant: "The old demons of Europe have been defeated, but are raising their heads again. The battle has not yet been decided."