Forget the Fickle Europeans

Israel is being harried by the EU to live within indefensible borders - whilst hollowed-out European armed forces can offer Israel no assurances.

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EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, left, speaks at a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, following their meeting in his Jerusalem office, June 20, 2013.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, left, speaks at a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, following their meeting in his Jerusalem office, June 20, 2013.Credit: AP
Amiel Ungar
Amiel Ungar

In recent years the European Union’s delegation to Israel has held an annual press lunch with representatives of the religiously-oriented press. At the last parley with the outgoing EU ambassador to Israel, John Standley, the invitees brought up once more the parallel between what the EU was demanding of Israel, in terms of harrying it to live within indefensible borders, and the 1938 Munich Pact between Nazi Germany and the European Great Powers (France, Italy, Britain) who coerced Czechoslovakia to surrender the Sudetenland, with its strategic terrain and defense industries. The fact that Munich is invoked so frequently in these meetings should not invalidate the comparison; even Professor Benny Morris (hardly your typical nationalist) admitted similar trepidations in a piece that he recently wrote.

During the exchange, I pointed out to Standley that the current EU position was actually worse than Munich, 1938. When Britain and France coerced then-Czech President Eduard Benes to surrender the Sudetenland they could at least pretend to effectively guarantee the rump Czechoslovakia; but before long, the German blitzkrieg revealed the hollowness of French military strength.

In today’s EU, defense budgets are being pared to the bone; in 2006 the UK's then-shadow defense secretary quipped that the entire ranks of the British Army would soon be comfortably accommodated in London's Wembley stadium. Europe’s current diktat to Israel therefore represents grandstanding without any responsibility for the consequences, as Europe cannot take on a serious conventional army from Syria on up.

Standley replied that the durable European peace - a major blessing of European integration - had permitted the decline in defense spending. Even if this were entirely the case (this narrative omits the American security umbrella and the current debt crisis), Israel cannot be reassured. Ambassador Standley did invoke, as proof of EU concern, the European components of the UN force in Lebanon, that under UNSC resolution 1701 was charged with preventing Hizballah's rearmament (and we all know how that turned out). The record speaks for itself: EU observers in Gaza and the Austrian contingent on the Golan were quick to depart at the first sign of trouble.

But then even if Europe were combat-ready, nobody here in Israel really expects Europe to shoulder its responsibilities to defend it, even if Israel totally caved to Catherine Ashton and her fellow Euro-apparatchiks. We learned the value of European reliability in 1973 during the Yom Kippur War, back in the good old days of Labor Party hegemony and when Jewish settlement was a rarity. A few days after the Arabs attacked, the Soviet Union commenced a massive airlift to replace the military hardware lost by its Arab clients during the first days of the fighting. When the U.S. sought to match this by an airlift of weaponry to Israel it encountered a snag: The Galaxy supply planes could not make it all the way to Israel and needed to land and refuel in Europe. The European governments denied the U.S. landing rights, although Israel’s survival was in the balance. Fortunately America’s NATO ally Portugal - still under authoritarian rule of Marcello Caetano - assented and the U.S. resupply effort was able to make use of the Portuguese Azores as a stopover.

The Yom Kippur War was accompanied by the oil shock that dictated further European cravenness and a readiness to belatedly embrace the Arab position calling upon Israel to withdraw to the 1949 Armistice lines. As Israel's dovish Foreign Minister Abba Eban observed, that reversal was motivated more by "oil for Europe than peace for the Middle East." Yitzhak Rabin concluded that 'in effect the [European declaration] accepts the Arabs' position on the political issue in everything regarding theArab-Israeli conflict." Previously only France, in line with Charles De Gaulle's abandonment of Israel, had pushed this pro-Arab interpretation of UNSCR 242.

The resolution's author, Britain's Lord Caradon, explained that the drafters intended that the armistice borders were not secure and defensible borders for Israel and the new borders would be different from the armistice lines, adjusted in Israel's favor. But soon after, the European community adopted the French position complete with a European Arab Dialogue process to show European esteem for the Arabs. This hostile policy was solidified in the 1980 Venice Declaration, that endorsed the legitimacy of Palestinian rights. It too came against a backdrop of a spike in oil prices triggered by the Iran-Iraq War. The declaration was Israel's "reward" for the Camp David Treaty where Israel abandoned the vast proportion of its territorial gains from the Six Day War.

Therefore the Europeans are correct when they say that nothing has changed in Europe's policy for over thirty years. Such immobilism is hardly to Europe's credit, particularly when the upheavals wracking our region should have produced a reappraisal of the sources of regional instability.

The key remains Washington. In 1980, even the Carter Administration was scornful of Europe's disruptive role and, as a result, Europe was excluded from negotiations until the Oslo geniuses let it back in. Currently one cannot exclude the possibility that the recent European move was part of a 'good cop, bad cop' routine cooked up with the Obama administration. The U.S. is where Israel must concentrate her attention.

Dr. Amiel Ungar is a political scientist.

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