European-Israeli ties: A story of sympathy and ambivalence

9th May 2008, Comments 0 comments

Israel at 60: Europe grapples with how to react to conflict with Palestinians.

Brussels (dpa) - For the past 60 years, public opinion in Europe appears to have been groping for a morally "right" response towards Israel.

And on the political and diplomatic side, the relationship between the various states which now make up the European Union and Israel has been equally double-edged.

Torn by guilt over the appalling revelations of the Holocaust in which about 6 million Jews died at the hands of Nazi Germany, most European states gave their tacit or explicit backing, when Israel declared its independence in 1948.
But Britain, whose foreign policy at the time hinged on maintaining good ties with Israel's oil-rich neighbours, opposed the creation of Israel and blocked the transfer of Holocaust survivors to the conflict zone.

The creation of Israel would be "so manifestly unjust to the Arabs that it is difficult to see how we could reconcile it with our conscience," British Foreign Minister Ernest Bevin reportedly said at the time.

In the years that followed, and as states such as Syria and Egypt forged closer ties with the USSR, Britain increasingly came to share Europe's pro-Israeli view, and Israel came to be praised as the "only democracy in the Middle East."
Those were the years, in which France was Israel's biggest supplier of arms, in which Britain, France and Israel together invaded Egypt in the Suez Crisis of 1956, and in which - according to a 2005 BBC report - Britain supplied Israel with heavy water for its nuclear-weapons programme.

In that era, talk of peace in the Middle East was seen as referring chiefly to Israel's relationship with its Arab neighbours - most of whom still refused to acknowledge the new country's right to exist.

But as Israel grew stronger and more assertive in the region, and the plight of Palestinian refugees in Jordan became more reported, some voices in Europe began to question its role.

Those voices grew to a deafening chorus in 1967, when the Israeli army launched one of the most successful military campaigns in history to destroy its enemies' armed forces in the Six Day War.

The lightning war, Israel's occupation of swathes of new territory and its consequent assumption of responsibility for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza brought a new dimension to the conflict.
Immediately after the war, France decided to stop arms shipments to Israel, with President Charles de Gaulle famously saying that Israel "is now organizing on the territories it took an occupation which cannot progress without oppression, repression, expulsions."

In the debate which followed, Europe's long-standing perception of Israel as the underdog clashed with the concept of Israel as the oppressor of the new underdog, the Palestinians.

That clash has continued to the present day. On the one hand, events ranging from the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics of 1972 to the 2006 kidnap of an Israeli soldier in Lebanon have led to condemnation of the perpetrators and raised sympathy, or at least understanding, for Israel's stance in many parts of Europe.

Hamas and Hezbollah are the "murderous twin creations" of Iran, Britain's The Sun wrote in the wake of the 2006 kidnapping, while accusing the world community of "casting Israel as the villain."

On the other hand, Israeli moves such as the invasion of Lebanon in 1982 or its current blockade of Gaza have led to equally furious responses by other European voices, with some extreme groups even accusing Israel of committing a Holocaust of its own - a stance not supported by any mainstream political group in Europe.
Indeed, according to a 2007 report by the Anti-Defamation League, more Europeans sympathize with the Palestinians than the Israelis today - but a majority of them also think that Hamas is a terrorist group and approve of the EU's refusal to deal with the organisation.

And with events such as Israel's recent armed incursion into Gaza, and Hamas' continued launch of rockets into Israel, still polarizing public opinion in Europe, the continent's wistful search for the "right" way to react to the conflict seems no closer to conclusion than it did 60 years ago.

Man with an Israel flag at the Brandenburg Gate, Berlin.

Photo (by Gero Breloer): A  man in Berlin ahead of a protest march of silence to German Rail's headquarters at Potsdamer Platz. Organisers of a travelling exhibition - the "Train of Remembrance" - on the deportations by rail of thousands of children to Nazi concentration camps were protesting at the German state railway operator's refusal to allow it to stop at the central station.

Report by Ben Nimmo, dpa 

9 May 2008 

[Copyright Expatica+dpa 2008] 

0 Comments To This Article