Israel finds more sympathy in Europe

Concerns about Islamist threat have influenced traditionally pro-Arab Europe's view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    Understanding: French President Nicolas Sarkozy (r.) met with former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem Tuesday, part of a Middle East tour amid European diplomatic efforts to push a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas.
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    Demographics: Europe's growing Muslim population has affected Europeans' perception of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Above, one of London's many mosques peeks over row houses.
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European Union leaders this week flanked Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni as she told the world's news media, "We are all opposed to terrorism." For many observers in Europe, the moment underscored a little-noted but ongoing convergence between European and US-Israeli thinking – despite the tragedy and challenge that Gaza presents.

For decades, Europe was a Middle East counterbalance – generally sympathetic to Palestinians as the weaker party, critical of an unqualified US backing of Israel. The Palestine Liberation Organization had offices in Europe. France's Navy helped Yasser Arafat escape Tripoli in 1983. Europe backed the Oslo Accords, and saw the Palestinian cause as a fight for territory and statehood.

Yet Europe's traditional position on the Arab dispute has been quietly changing: It is gravitating closer to a US-Israeli framing of a war on terror, a "clash of civilizations," with a subtext of concern about the rise of Islam – and away from an emphasis on core grievances of Palestinians, like the ongoing Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and "occupation."

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Causes for the shift are complex and manifold, and in no small way associated with the rise of Muslim populations in Europe. But since Sept. 11, the discourse and psychology in Europe has shifted, with pro-Arab support "diluting and weakening," as Karim Bitar, with the International Institute of Strategic Relations in Paris, puts it – and converging with US-Israeli framing of a fight against terror. [Editor's note: The original version misspelled Mr. Bitar's name.]

"There is convergence on goals [terrorism] between Europe and the US, and a remnant of divergence on means [military logic]," argues the French intellectual Dominique Moisi. "The Europeans are less pro-Islamic Muslims now than before, after 9/11.

"We also see that even American Jews are not entirely at peace with what Israel is doing. There's more criticism of Israel than before, in American opinion; and in Europe there is less support of what the Arabs are."

In the Gaza conflict, "European diplomats see a crisis with no exit point," says a senior French scholar with extensive Mideast experience. "They think if the Israelis can put out Hamas and put in Abbas, that would be wonderful. They don't see Hamas as Palestinian nationals, but as Islamic."

A Euro-American convergence leaves European Union diplomats supporting Palestinians on "shallower emotional and humanitarian grounds," says Mr. Bitar, "helping people survive, hoping economic improvement is enough, and forgetting the old issues of substance, and Israeli occupation. The two-state solution is nearly dead."

Europe itself is not the Europe of decades past, dominated by French diplomacy, with its Arab ties. There are 27 nations. Eastern and former Soviet states, like Poland and the Czech Republic, often take American positions on foreign affairs. As Prague took over the EU presidency last week, it issued a statement that Israel's actions in Gaza were "defensive" – later backing down under French and British censure.

In Scandinavia, traditionally pro-Arab states have found social tensions with new Muslim populations – the crisis in Denmark over a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad, for example – and public support for Arabs is down in polls. In Europe today, nearly all major leaders – France's Nicolas Sarkozy, Germany's Angela Merkel, Britain's Gordon Brown, and Italy's Silvio Berlusconi – are seen as leaning toward Israel. The lone pro-Arab leader is Spain's José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero.

"There is a general 'Arab fatigue' in Europe," says Denis Bauchard, an adviser to the French Institute for International Relations in Paris. "The Palestine issue continues, the violence continues, the Palestinians are divided, and it just creates a kind of fatigue."

"Europe fears an Islamist threat, whether internal or external, and this has begun to change the overall views on the Israel-Palestine conflict," says Aude Signoles, an expert on Palestinian movements at the University of La Réunion in Madagascar.

A Pew Global Attitudes poll in 2006 found that French sympathies were evenly divided (38 percent) between those sympathizing with the Palestinians and with Israel, marking a doubling of support for Israel and a 10 percent gain for Palestinians over the previous two years. In Germany, 37 percent sympathized with Israel – an increase of 13 points over 2004 and more than double those who supported the Palestinians.

To be sure, Europe retains deep reservoirs of solidarity with North Africa. Public opinion here is outraged by the Gaza inferno. There is widespread condemnation of the Israeli attack, including by French President Sarkozy. European media have been overwhelmingly sympathetic to the Gazans, even while being barred from entering the Strip.

More fundamentally, says Antoine Sfeir, founder of the Middle East review "Cahiers de L'Orient," European leaders understand the political realities in Israel, the problems of a state attacked by rockets, and the need to protect citizens. Even if he disagrees with the framing of the issue, "The Europeans don't see this as a Palestinian thing. They see it as a Hamas thing," he says. "In fact, this is not about terrorism; it is a war between Israel and Palestinians that is being called a war on terror."

Ironically perhaps, Europeans were the most vocal critics of the Bush administration-coined phrase "war on terror." It is seen as overreaching and simplistic while being used to sanction wars like Iraq.

Yet since Sept. 11, a discourse that advocates a tough confrontation with Islam has emerged in Europe – based in part on Samuel Huntington's "clash of civilization" theory – in such venues as the French magazine "Brave New World." Sarkozy has been congenial to these points.

Authors include former leftists like Pascal Bruckner, André Glucksmann, Olivier Rolin, and Bernard-Henri Lévy who supported the war in Iraq and view Islam as a creeping form of totalitarian ideology moving into Europe. The most recent issue contains an homage to Mr. Huntington, who died last month.

Bitar argues that "Islamophobia" feeds a popular confusion in Europe about Muslims. "Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda are all viewed as the same thing. Europe used to see the Arab conflict as about territory. Now it is shifting towards the global war on terror, Islam versus the West, clash theory."

Mr. Moisi dissents from the Huntington thesis. His recent book "Clash of Emotion," describes a West characterized by "fear" and an Arab world characterized by "humiliation."

US and European differences on Israel have been deep and numerous. The US and Israel have religious and theological sensibilities about the Holy Land; Europeans view the Palestinian issue through a secular and humanitarian lens.

America, with an influential Jewish population, has seen Israel's security and right to defend itself as central. Europe, without as weighty a lobby, has stressed UN security resolutions, and international law for Palestinians that have been a counterbalance. European academics have not been uneasy with the phrase "state-sponsored terrorism" to describe Israeli violence against Palestinians; in America the phrase is seen as far-left.

Europeans saw President Clinton as an honest broker in the Mideast; President Bush has been seen as wholly aligned with Israel.

Large differences still exist between the two continents on the priority of the Palestinian-Israeli issue.

"In Europe, we see the Palestinian issue as major, one that, if not solved, will continue the chaos and violence," says Mr. Bauchard. "Americans agree with Israel that the real issue is the existential threat from Iran. The Israelis built a wall and treated the Palestinians as unimportant."

European media characterize the photogenic and well-spoken Ms. Livni as a moderate – though she emerged from the hard-line party of Ariel Sharon. "The Europeans really fear what will happen if [right-wing Likud Party chairman Benjamin] Netanyahu wins in February," says Ms. Signoles. "So she is called a moderate, because in Europe, the term right-wing means violent."

Signoles points out that the main effect of a Europe that adopts an American position is that the core Palestinian issues regarding the cessation of settlements, a shared capital of Jerusalem, and the right of return "may not be emphasized as before.… [T]he Israel-Palestine issue is an asymmetric problem, and if the international community does not raise it and balance it, there is little chance that the rights of the smaller player will be raised."

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