Border Control / How We Lost Europe

It was exactly 10 years ago. Israel's ambassador to Jordan, Oded Eran, was invited to present his writ of appointment to King Hussein on the afternoon of the Shavuot holiday in 1997. Someone forgot, however, that because of religious law associated with the holiday, the ambassador would not be able to travel in his armored car to the palace - and security personnel did not permit him to travel on foot. He remained at home.

That was the second time Eran was forced to announce to the Jordanians that he could not arrive at the palace. A few days before that, instead of presenting his writ of appointment to King Hussein, Eran presented a letter of resignation to then foreign minister David Levy.

Three days after arriving in Amman, Eran read in a newspaper that former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had met with the king in Aqaba in the middle of the night. The two leaders deliberated the division of water between the two nations, a subject as familiar to Eran as water to a fish, because of his former post as deputy director of the Foreign Ministry economics department.

Eran ultimately withdrew his resignation in response to David Levy's request, and Levy's admission that he, too, had been left out of the loop. Then, the ceremony was delayed for a third time - this time because of the hoopla surrounding the ill-fated attempt to assassinate Khaled Meshal on Jordanian soil.

"Ten days after the affair, the king conducted the ceremony with tremendous courage," Eran remembers. "He joked that, in the end, he would have to bring me to the palace in a prisoners' transport vehicle." That joke did not stray far from truth. Eran left the palace in an armored Cadillac, surrounded by an army of guards that nearly made him a prisoner in his own home.

After 41 years in a variety of foreign posts, and a few days after beginning his new job, Eran, a representative of the World Jewish Congress, reflects on his days in the Foreign Ministry, in Jerusalem, where he was a member of the administration for years; his term in Washington, where he served in the 1980s as deputy ambassador and before that as an envoy to Congress; and his previous post in Brussels, where he served as Israeli ambassador to the European Union and NATO.

Eran does not miss autumn 1999, and the short period in which former prime minister Ehud Barak extracted him from Amman and placed him at the helm of the team that negotiated with the Palestinians. The new-old candidate for Labor Party leadership would undoubtedly prefer not to share the "compliments" that Eran bestows upon him among party members, on the eve of primaries to be held at the end of the month.

"During all the years in which I was involved in contacts with the Arabs, in negotiations of normalization agreements with Egypt in the wake of the peace treaty and in negotiations with the Palestinians on 'Oslo B,' I never encountered a system like that employed by Ehud Barak," Eran says.

"Understandably, there is a place for secret channels of discussion among political leaders. But Barak conducted half a dozen channels of that type, which only increased the lack of clarity and conflicts, and created embarrassment on both sides. In addition, he did not present objectives to me and did not determine red lines. That produced constant erosion of the Israeli position, which exceeded the limits of tactical conduct in which each side presents its opening position and shifts from it in response to developments in the talks. When Israel demanded 20 percent of the territories, as an opening position, and, within weeks, presented a position that maintained that Israel was also willing to accept less than a quarter of those same territories, it did not reflect credibility and gravity.

"To Barak's credit, I must say he dared to introduce subjects that were taboo in our internal deliberations, like the need to achieve compromise on the issue of Jerusalem, and mainly the subject of holy sites. These issues that are so difficult to solve were not the subject of a single internal discussion before Camp David in July 2000.

"There was also no discussion of the internal association between these issues and the other two major issues: boundaries and refugees. In any case, they did not present to us the freedom to maneuver that could develop in the process of negotiations - in other words, what we could offer the Palestinians on one issue, in exchange for their concessions in another.

"Before we return to the negotiations table, we must learn lessons from the manner in which negotiations were conducted at that time. The Americans and the Palestinians also went to the Camp David Summit without previous understandings, with insufficient closure of gaps, and without preliminary coordination between the three sides or alternative positions. Had we acted in that manner, we might well have avoided the second intifada and its consequences. Barak's turn toward the Syrian route immediately after negotiations with the Palestinians opened in September, 1999, also failed to earn the trust of Palestinians and did not contribute to the success of talks with them."

Foreign Ministry left out

Barak maintains he exposed the real face of Arafat. Did he also cause the onset of the second intifada?

Eran: "Many people could have exposed Arafat without entering negotiations and arriving at the circumstances we faced in September 2000. Despite that, I believe that the failure of negotiations derived more from Arafat's personality than from Barak's mistakes. From my meetings with Arafat, I concluded that to reach a solution, we had to achieve a deal based on Israeli territorial concessions in conjunction with Palestinian concessions on the right to return, and concessions on both sides regarding holy sites. In my opinion, Arafat did not reach the required understanding of that equation and was incapable of arriving at that. But I could be mistaken.

"I remember May 2, 2000 well. We were in a hotel in Eilat, at the height of talks with the Palestinians. Early in the morning, all the participants approached me to congratulate me on the birth of my first grandson, Yuval. Two hours later, we completed the meeting and stood in silence - the Palestinians, as well - during the sounding of the Holocaust Memorial Day siren. In the afternoon, after I presented Israel's territorial demands, Mohammed Dahlan revealed the Palestinian position, for the first and what proved also to be the last time. After he cursed, for 10 minutes in three languages, he announced, 'you will never get more than 4 percent from us and that is also in exchange for identical area that you give us.' It may be possible to deduce that more correct management of negotiations may have produced an acceptable compromise. But that didn't happen."

In Camp David, as during the Second Lebanon War, according to the Winograd Committee, the Foreign Ministry was not involved in the crux of the decision making. Did that situation frustrate you?

"Most ministries, from the premiership to the Defense Ministry to the Finance Ministry, tend to ignore the Foreign Ministry, circumvent it and attend to international issues without consulting or involving the ministry. There was almost no position in which I did not encounter this phenomenon that was rooted in David Ben-Gurion's days in office.

"I am not certain that this is unique to Israel. In the age of rapid telecommunication between heads of state and systems leaders, there is no choice but to redefine the status of foreign ministries and their roles. Following the Winograd Committee's interim report, I presented recommendations to the director-general of the Foreign Ministry regarding how to strengthen the ministry's involvement in the decision-making process in situations like those that led to the Second Lebanon War. As a result, we must also implement internal arrangements within the ministry to quickly handle shifting circumstances."

You were privileged to serve in very senior positions in the U.S. and Europe. One might assume that the life of an Israeli diplomat in Washington is easier and more pleasant than that of one in Brussels.

"If you examine them in depth, you will find a surprising resemblance between the basic positions of Europe and the U.S. regarding the heart of the conflict with the Palestinians. Though I would be happy to receive a letter from Europe like the letter sent by President [George W.] Bush to Sharon pertaining to settlement blocs and the [Palestinian] right of return, the fact remains that the basic position of the U.S. has not changed since the Rogers plan in 1969. No Jewish lobby has changed that. Despite that, it is hard to find a resemblance between Israel-U.S. relations and relations between Israel and Europe. Relations between Israel and the U.S. do not depend on the conflict. On the other hand, the occupation represents a real obstacle to relations with Europe. The most critical members of the European Union are the Scandinavian nations, Malta and Ireland. This is only because of the Palestinian issue.

"There is no doubt that nothing in any European nation compares with the political clout of the Jewish community in the U.S., and of course nothing in the European Union. The lack of a Jewish element complicates modes of action. I would be happy to see an AIPAC equivalent in Brussels and Strasbourg. Jewish communities in Europe are beginning to organize to act in conjunction with the union - this has significance that exceeds Israel's interests - to oppose the phenomenon of anti-Semitism and racism in EU nations. There is anti-Semitism in Europe that must not be swept under the rug, but I do not recommend rushing in to declare that Europe is anti-Semitic.

"In recent years, the Holocaust played a marginal role in relations with EU countries, including Germany. Europe's current perspective on Israel lacks emotion and is loaded with self-interest. That is not exceptional. American Middle East policy is also motivated by its own interests. I believe that solving the conflict will bring about a dramatic change in relations with Europe. Now, as well, central EU institutions thwart attempts by a variety of groups in Europe to harm the relationship with Israel to punish it for its policy."

What of a visit to Brussels?

It appears that every Israeli government, be it Likud, Labor or a unity government, relies on the U.S. and gives up on Europe.

"True. Since 1967, Israel puts its trust solely in Washington in all matters pertaining to security, relations with Arab nations, and, to a great extent, economic issues. It is certainly time for an Israeli prime minister to visit Brussels, the capital of the European Union. Even as a stop on the way back from a visit to Washington. It's hard to remember the last time that an Israeli prime minister visited Brussels or the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Europe is not on our policy map. We missed a number of opportunities as a result of the lack of any serious deliberation by the government to date, of our desired relations with the EU. Increased terror in Europe, the growing conflict with some European, Muslim communities, and the need to grapple with the Iranian nuclear threat contributes to greater understanding of Israel's position and balance in the European position.

"In strategic planning, decision makers must take the rise of the EU as a central player in the international arena into account. It is permissible to define the EU as a power. The Second Iraq War taught Americans a lesson in the limits of power. Now, the U.S. is prepared to involve the EU, in the context of the Quartet - though Sharon denied and ignored its existence - and in the battle against Iran's nuclear program. That contributes additional importance to the EU and creates the need to seriously relate to its foreign policy in issues relevant to Israel."