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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 / January 8, 2009

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.

Eric Feferberg/AP

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Paris

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.

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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."

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."

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