In February, the German politician Martin Schulz, the president of the European Parliament and the Social Democratic candidate for European Commission president in the coming European Union elections, traveled to Israel to address the Knesset.
...his implication was clear: Israel is purposely depriving Palestinians of their basic needs. But if his comments drew immediate condemnation in the Israeli press, they attracted little attention in Europe, perhaps because he was simply expressing what has come to be conventional wisdom there: Israel, many Europeans believe, is capable of almost anything in its treatment of Palestinians.
The feelings of distrust are mutual: According to the Global Attitudes Project at the Pew Research Center, only 41 percent of Israelis had a favorable view of the European Union in 2013, down from 56 percent in 2009...
Europe and Israel have hit rough spots before. But the rancor of the last few years is different — more vituperative, more widespread. If it remains, the hopes for a European role in a final peace deal will be dashed.
European animosity toward Israel goes beyond the public. The European Union recently adopted guidelines forbidding its agencies to send money to Israeli companies and organizations in the West Bank; this and other similar steps apply a double standard it doesn’t use in other conflicts. And it seems aimed to increasingly push Israel into a corner.
... Europe has also lost the measure of how one-sided its approach has become. European officials have a habit of aggrandizing obstacles for peace put up by Israel and minimizing those put up by the Palestinians.
To understand Europe’s Middle East complex, one has to go back to the days when the Continent started to forge a common foreign policy. The first joint declaration in foreign affairs emerged in 1973 as a response to the Gulf states’ oil embargo against the West after the Yom Kippur War. Its aim was to appease Arab states and to lift the embargo’s pressure on European economies.
The Middle East thus became the subject around which European diplomats continued to press a collective response. For decades they had no common foreign policy toward any region of the world but the Middle East.
But instead of finding pragmatic solutions, they settled for airy joint resolutions; after having agreed on most subtle wordings, the diplomats in Brussels would fly home exhausted — until the next crisis demanded another declaration. As a result, European talk about the conflict has become terribly cliché-ridden. The “window of opportunity” is always closing fast. The “spiral of violence” is always in danger of spinning out of control. And the Palestinians are usually seen as victims reacting to Israeli measures, and not as authors of their own fate.
To Europe, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the root of all problems facing the region — a view in no way altered by the Arab Human Development Reports published by the United Nations since 2002, which showed that Arab autocracies and cultural backwardness were the root of the region’s woes.
Even after the outbreak of the Arab revolutions revealed that indeed corruption — and lack of dignity, democracy and opportunity — were to blame for the rage of the Arab street, Europe insisted on the centrality of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
It is striking that Europe always comes to the Israelis with demands for concessions when it has itself such a bad track record at helping resolve problems in the region. After Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza in 2005, the European Union agreed to police the Rafah crossing in order to help prevent weapons smuggling. But it essentially abandoned the mission two years later. After the 2006 Lebanon war, European nations took over large parts of the United Nations mission to prevent weapons smuggling to Hezbollah. On their watch the terrorist group acquired tens of thousands of new and more sophisticated rockets. If the Europeans were honest with themselves, they would admit that some of their long-held assumptions didn’t pass the reality test. Like the idea that Israel should always swap land for peace. It has worked with states like Egypt. But it has failed whenever ideologically driven nonstate actors were involved.
Israel’s withdrawal from Lebanon resulted not in the disarming of Hezbollah, as many European experts had predicted, but in a heavily armed Iranian proxy sitting directly at Israel’s border. We’ve seen much the same in Gaza.
Despite these discouraging experiences, every Israeli military action against radicals in Gaza or Lebanon is met with protests in Europe. Which doesn’t inspire confidence in Israeli leaders that Europe would accept Israel’s right to self-defense if a future Palestinian state in the West Bank became a similar hotbed of extremism and revisionist politics.
It is always comfortable for Europeans to demand that Israel make hard decisions for peace. But Europe must now ask itself some hard questions, too. What guarantees could Europe offer Israel in return for a Palestinian state to protect it if the peace experiment failed and radicals took over the West Bank? Would Europe be ready to offer membership in NATO and the European Union if the Israelis asked for it?
I am not sure there are any promising answers to these questions. But if all Europe has to offer Israel is criticism and disapproval, then it will be part of the problem, not the solution.