The growing divide between Israel and Europe

December 3, 2012

How Europe voted in the Nov. 29, 2012 UN vote on whether to upgrade the Palestinian Authority's status, which passed. Click to enlarge. (Max Fisher/Washington Post)

Late Sunday, Barak Ravid, the scoop-prone diplomatic correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, published an arresting, if qualified, story: the U.K. and France are considering recalling their ambassadors to Israel. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had just approved construction of thousands of new Israeli settler homes in a sensitive area of the Palestinian West Bank known as E1, and the European powers had had enough. Ravid quoted a "senior European diplomat" as saying, “This time it won’t just be a condemnation, there will be real action taken against Israel."

Europe taking action "against Israel" – it is a moment that has been difficult to imagine. And yet a European-Israeli collision course has been foreseeable for months, perhaps years. So far, the European ambassadors remain in Tel Aviv; the U.K., France, Sweden, Spain and Denmark have all "summoned" Israel's ambassadors to their countries, a classic tool of diplomatic censure. Whether or not Europe ends up taking action any more substantial than this, the threat of severing diplomatic ties is out there now. The story of how things got this bad could hold important lessons for Israel, for its place in the world, and for the Israel-Palestine peace process.

Germany, perhaps Israel's greatest champion among Europe's leading states, is also an important bellwether for European-Israeli relations.

In early 2008, German Chancellor Angela Merkel went before the Israeli Knesset and pledged her country's support for Israel – and for a peace process led by Israelis and Palestinians, without interference from the outside. "Every German chancellor before me has shouldered Germany's special historical responsibility for Israel's security," she said, explicitly citing the Holocaust. "This historical responsibility is part of my country's raison d'être. For me as German chancellor, therefore, Israel's security will never be open to negotiation." Merkel emphasized the opportunity in Germany's special responsibility to Israel, linking it to Israeli-Palestinian peace. "I most firmly believe that only if Germany accepts its enduring responsibility for the moral disaster in its history will we be able to build a humane future," she said.

In international diplomacy, support for Israel has meant, and manifested as, supporting Israeli security efforts and supporting Israel's position that peace has to come through direct negotiations with Palestinian representatives, not through outside interference. European leaders have long supported both, and support for Israeli security shows no signs of waning, but their impatience with Israeli peace efforts is showing, and perhaps driving the diplomatic split. 

In a ForeignPolicy.com article titled "How Israel Lost Europe," conservative-leaning Israel-watchers Jonathan Schanzer and Benjamin Weinthal chronicle Berlin's growing frustration with Israel. In 2009, the year after Merkel's speech, her national security adviser privately expressed exasperation with Netanyahu's policies toward the Palestinians, urging U.S. diplomats to take a firmer hand. The next year, Merkel and Netanyahu "had a heated telephone exchange over the settlements issue." Not long after, Germany upgraded the Palestinian Authority's diplomatic status in Berlin, an implicit show of pessimism in direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and of reduced deference to Israel.

Still, in 2011, when the United Nations voted on whether or not to admit the Palestinian Authority to a cultural body called UNESCO, Germany was one of a handful of countries to vote no. The vote was seen as a crucial test case for the UN's willingness to recognize Palestine as a sovereign country, which would signal international pessimism that direct Israeli-Palestinian talks could secure peace and thus a truly sovereign Palestinian state. Most of the world voted yes, except in Europe, where most countries abstained. Following is a map of Europe's 2011 vote.


2011 UN vote on Palestinian membership in UNESCO. Click to enlarge. (Max Fisher/Washington Post)

Compare this map to the map of last week's votes on a similar UN measure: upgrading the Palestinian Authority's status to that of "non-member observer state," one step closer to international recognition of Palestine as a state. Nine European states changed their votes from 2011, all in the direction of supporting the PA's efforts – and thus clashing with Israeli and U.S. opposition to the vote. Europe has long held the middle-ground between the U.S.-Israel position and the rest of the world's overwhelming support for Palestinians, but is that changing?

How did it happen? Each European state's relationship with Israel and the peace process is unique, but some broader trends do apply, with significant implications for the world's approach to Israel-Palestine.

Domestic European politics could well play a role, although the connection is not straightforward: the euro zone crisis is shifting European Parliaments to the left, as voters elect socialist parties that promise to restore social services damaged by austerity, and which also sometimes happen to lean closer to supporting Palestinians. Germany's rising social democrats have, as Schanzer and Weinthal point out, sought a "strategic partnership" with the Palestinian Authority's ruling party. Many in Israel and elsewhere are rightly concerned about the alarming rise of hard-right nationalist parties in Europe; the parties can be quite anti-Semitic, but they are also deeply antagonistic toward Europe's growing Muslim populations, so it's hard to see them championing Palestinian causes.

The legacy of the Holocaust is difficult to ignore in European politics with regards to Israel. German Nobel Prize-winning poet Gunter Grass' controversial poem last year about his country's relationship toward Israel, for all its awkward reasoning and ham-fisted politics, hit on a very real debate that has been simmering for years in central European politics: what is our "responsibility," as Merkel put it in 2008? Putting aside the merits of that debate – and particularly the merits of Grass's poem – it was probably only a matter of time, as the Holocaust transitioned from recent memory to recent history, that it became a little less taboo to question the responsibility for supporting Israel. A foreign policy built on the Holocaust's legacy was probably never going to be permanent.

Israeli policies probably have not helped. Left-leaning Israeli columnist Aluf Benn, in criticizing the Israeli policies that have so frustrated European diplomats, argued, "Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu views foreign policy as a holding action against 'the world,' which insists on talking about a Palestinian state and opposes the settlements." When the United Nations overwhelmingly approved the Palestinian Authority's bid for upgraded status, Netanyahu responded not by heeding the growing international support for Palestinians as a reason to change policies, but by doubling down on those policies. He announced renewed settlement growth in the West Bank and that Israel would withhold Palestinian tax revenue, measures widely seen as punitive, and probably not going to slow Europe's slow move away from Israel.

Will it make any actual difference in the Middle East? It's hard to predict the future, particularly in Israel-Palestine, where the status quo seems able to resist just about anything. But there are two possible implications that, even if they never come true, could prod Israeli officials to change Europe-alienating policies, mainly settlement growth. The first, least likely, and scariest for Israel is the possibility that the U.S. might follow.

The New Yorker's David Remnick characterized Netanyahu's decision to grow settlements in the West Bank as "precisely what would embarrass and anger the Obama Administration most." He continued, "And yet the Israelis have been quick to rebuff any talk of a crisis in U.S.-Israel relations; all the talk is of 'shared values' and 'your only ally in the region.'" A crisis in European-Israeli relations also has seemed unlikely, and yet it may well be here. Though it's extremely difficult to foresee the U.S. breaking with Israel on something like last week's UN vote, as most of Europe did, it's possible that Israeli leaders will begin to imagine the possibility of a smaller but potentially damaging crisis with Washington, and just maybe start to listen a bit more attentively when the United States insists on no more settlements.

Probably more likely, though still remote, is the possibility that Israel will want Europe's support should the Palestinian Authority seek to use its new UN status to seek charges against Israel at the International Criminal Court. The U.K. reportedly considered voting on behalf of the Palestinian Authority last week but instead abstained because it was not satisfied that the authority wouldn't try to access the International Criminal Court. That suggests that European leaders would not be sympathetic to Palestinian ICC overtures, but also that the Palestinian Authority might try it anyway. Should the ICC hear Palestinian cases and rule against Israel, and should some or all of Europe consider the ruling legitimate, it could create a real crisis for Israeli-European relations and could make it difficult or impossible for Israeli leaders to travel to Europe, which would be legally obligated to observe any ICC arrest warrants. That's a lot of "ifs," and don't expect Netanyahu to be barred from visiting Paris or London anytime soon. But the mere possibility, increased a bit by Europe's changing political attitudes toward Israel, could be enough to potentially alter Israeli political calculations and encourage behavior less likely to offend the Europeans.

Still, the status quo is always a safe bet in Israel-Palestine, even with the changing European politics. But it is difficult to miss the larger trend, however slight and gradual, of international diplomatic support slackening for Israel and growing for outside involved in the long-stalled peace process. What Israel wants to do about that is up to Israel.

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