In wake of U.N. vote, Israel wary of united Europe

jerusalem | If Israeli officials thought the accession of 10 new countries to the European Union would produce a more pro-Israel E.U. foreign policy, the recent U.N. General Assembly vote against Israel’s West Bank security barrier was a dose of cold water.

Now some high-ranking Israeli officials fear the E.U.’s unanimous vote against the fence was a sign that an energized and united Europe will take a stronger stand than ever on Israeli-Palestinian affairs, and could even move the United States away from its traditional support for the Jewish state.

Calling the July 20 vote a watershed, these Israeli officials say a more confident and assertive Europe may pressure the next U.S. administration to impose a deal on Israel and the Palestinians. They also may impose economic sanctions on Israel or even back calls for a single binational Israeli-Palestinian state — one that, through simple demographics, would become a majority Arab state in a few years time.

Other officials dismiss this scenario as far-fetched. They maintain that Israel’s close economic, scientific and cultural ties with Europe preclude the possibility of the union leading a campaign that could mean the end of the Jewish state.

But the Israeli establishment clearly has been rocked by the European vote, and is finding it difficult to assess its full significance.

When Javier Solana, the E.U.’s foreign policy chief, arrived in Jerusalem a few days after the vote, Israeli leaders were scathingly critical. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said it would be difficult to incorporate Europe into any Israeli-Palestinian peace process unless it showed more sensitivity to Israel’s security needs.

Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom said bluntly that he would find it difficult to convince the Israeli people that the European Union was a political partner they could trust.

But Solana brushed off the warnings. Standing at Shalom’s side, he declared confidently: “We will be involved — whether you want us or not.”

The vote was the first major issue on which the enlarged European Union expressed unanimity, and it proves the union is a political bloc with a common foreign policy, he said in an interview with Ha’aretz, noting that even would-be E.U. members, like Turkey, Bulgaria and Romania, had voted the same way.

This single, clear European voice is precisely what some Israeli officials fear. Until now, they note, Israel has been able to maneuver between E.U. countries with which it has closer ties, such as Germany and Britain, and countries that traditionally take a more pro-Palestinian line, such as France.

Beyond that, the officials fear that if there is no progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, Europe may press for a single Israeli-Palestinian state, which quickly would have a Palestinian majority.

They note that the emerging generation of European elites has less empathy with Israel than their predecessors — and no Holocaust guilt — meaning they would have fewer reservations about joining a Palestinian-inspired campaign to delegitimize the Jewish state.

But other Israeli officials are less alarmist. They point out that, for now, the vision of independent Israeli and Palestinian states remains accepted throughout the international community, including the European Union.

And, they add, the European Union is seriously considering including Israel as one of the first members of “wider Europe,’ a grouping incorporating peripheral states bordering Europe that will get trade concessions.

But officials on both sides of the argument over Europe agree that Israel’s trump card is Sharon’s disengagement plan. Pulling out of Gaza, they say, is the best way to convince the international community that Israel really intends to end its domination of the Palestinians and move toward a two-state solution.

This, they say, is Israel’s best chance of preempting European or other pressure down the road for a binational state.

Leslie Susser is the diplomatic correspondent for the Jerusalem Report.