Sharon Sadeh: An unbridgeable gulf separates Europe and Israel

Whereas the EU perceives suicide attacks as criminal acts, Israel perceives them as acts of war
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The Independent Online

When George Bush stands between the prime ministers of Israel and the Palestine Authority tomorrow, to encourage them to take the first steps of the "road-map" for peace, conspicuous by their absence will be any representatives from Brussels or the other European capitals.

Although the European Union played an important part in pressing the Palestinians to accepting the plan, it lacks similar political clout in Israel. Indeed, Ariel Sharon's refusal to meet Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy chief, a couple of weeks ago, following his meeting with Yasser Arafat, suggests a gulf of suspicion.

The core difference in the views of the EU and Israel on conflict resolution stems from their dissimilar political and institutional traits. The EU is a collection of nation states that, after many bloody wars, concluded that it would resolve differences collectively and diplomatically by the creation of a supranational structure, superseding sovereign nations.

Israel finds itself on the opposite end of the spectrum, where the nation state remains supreme. The Jews have a long history of dealing with anti-Semitism. This, joined with the constant state of war with neighbours and numerous embargoes by friendly nations, has shaped Israel's view of her place among nations. It is imbued with the need to remain strong to preserve its national identity. Furthermore, Israel exists in a region that has not arrived at the same political situation as Europe. As a result, Israel cannot follow the EU model of resolving problems through negotiation.

These contradictory positions are epitomised in what can be termed the "conflicting narratives of conflict". Whereas the EU perceives the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians as a solvable territorial dispute, which requires two equal and politically viable sides (hence EU financial and political support for the Palestinian Authority to balance the American support of Israel), Israel sees it as an existential one. This irreconcilable view leads to different interpretations of key issues. Two prime examples are the policies regarding combating terrorism and funding the Palestinian Authority.

Israel and the EU have different interpretations of what constitutes terrorist activities, and these result in diverging legal definitions of the phenomenon. Whereas the EU perceives suicide attacks as criminal acts, Israel perceives them as acts of war - one tool in a broader Arab fundamentalist strategy aimed at Israel's elimination. Thus, the Israeli interpretation permits targeted killing of suspected terrorists as a pre-emptive measure; the European one does not. Israel is often condemned by the EU for performing extrajudicial acts.

Israel ceased negotiating with the Palestinian Authority after September 2000, as it felt that, under President Arafat, it was responsible for aiding and abetting terrorist activities. In fact, Israel did not resume high-level contact until a few days ago, with the newly appointed Prime Minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who openly objects to Arafat's strategy of armed struggle with Israel.

At the same time as Israel stopped recognising Arafat as a credible partner, the EU continued to view him as such, offering extensive diplomatic and financial assistance in order to "maintain the PA as a viable interlocutor for future negotiations", as asserted recently by Chris Patten, the EU's external affairs commissioner.

The EU perceives the clashes between the two sides as part of a futile cycle of violence, where Israel is regarded as the stronger party, employing excessive force against the Palestinians who are considered to be the underdog. The Israelis see their incursions and pre-emptive strikes into the Palestinian territories as a vital part of their war on terrorism. Suicide attacks, Israel argues, are motivated by relentless incitement encouraged by Arafat.

European sources that contribute to perpetuating the dichotomy in conflict resolution include political discourse motivated by electoral and real-politik considerations and relativist academic circles influenced by post-colonial guilt. The picture they paint, through the media, is one of Israel as a brutal occupier, unwilling to compromise, that pleads security concerns as an avoidance tactic whenever difficult political concessions are being discussed.

The Jews having experienced severe aggression during the Second World War, the older generation in Europe feels justified in reducing the emotional baggage they have been carrying since the Holocaust, because their victim has became another's victimiser. At the same time, the younger generation sees Israel as an irrational state that does not merit sympathy; these post-war Europeans, Germany excluded, have not been required to learn about the Holocaust, and do not understand why they must carry this historical burden.

Even when Israel and the EU are in rare agreement, as was the case over the Palestinian weapons ship ment seized by Israel in January 2002, their interpretation of the same evidence was incongruent. In this case, as in other security issues such as the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the risks of global terrorism, Israel and the main European countries continue to analyse identical data and reach different conclusions.

The reasons appear to be political and institutional. In Israel, the security and intelligence services, Shin Bet and Mossad, have direct access to the prime minister due to Israel's beleaguered situation; their equivalents in Europe do not. In European countries, security services are subordinate to political and bureaucratic echelons, which instil their own worldview when assessing and interpreting the same intelligence material, before these reports are presented to ministers. It is no surprise that these operational distinctions result in differing political conclusions.

Unlike the strained relationships with the main European countries, Israel's relations with the United States are at an all-time high. In Israel's eyes, the US offers what the EU lacks - influence and sympathy. What other world leader visited Auschwitz before an international conference, as did George Bush? When did Jacques Chirac make such a pilgrimage, if ever?

The only hope of breaking the frosty relationship is in the future enlargement of the EU. The coming enlargement adds strong pro-American and, in turn, pro-Israeli components to the union. Eventually, these new member states will influence EU policy, as the new members are less committed to old Continental worldviews.

Israel recognises that it needs a partnership with Europe, not only as a large trading partner, but also to gain legitimacy in the international community. Improved relations with Europe are an imperative for Israel's future wellbeing. One can only hope that a more moderate treatment of the Palestinians on Israel's part and a shift in the EU's policy towards Israel, accompanied by a realistic understanding of its predicament, will bring the two sides closer together.

The writer is the EU and UK correspondent of the liberal Israeli daily paper 'Haaretz'