European publics had, to some extent, viewed Israel with more sympathy in recent years, reflecting their own fears of Arabs and Muslims since the 9/11 attacks on the US. But that small shift towards Israel seems to be over.
“For some time there has been a new kind of tolerance for Israel here. But Israel is coming to the end of this; it has over-exploited the sympathy,” says Dominique Moisi of the Paris-based French Institute of International Relations, who was in Israel yesterday. “There is a growing rift between Israel and the rest … part of a process of Israel’s self-isolation.”
Merkel, Sarkozy, Cameron criticize Israel
In the past day German Chancellor Angela Merkel called for end of Israel's Gaza blockade, British Prime Minister David Cameron urged Israel to listen to its critics, and French president Nicolas Sarkozy called the attack a “disproportionate use of force.”
Israel's killing of the activists on international aid flotilla came after Israeli commandos rappelled from a helicopter onto one of the ships. The assault on the ship, which was in international waters, followed a string of recent events that have damaged Israel's image in Europe.
The Israeli blockade, which had been quietly supported by Egypt until Tuesday, was instituted in 2007 in response to Hamas's violent take-over of the coastal territory. It tightened in the wake of the 2008-09 Gaza war aimed at stopping Hamas rocket fire, a three-week offensive in which some 1,400 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed. The blockade has led to shortages of food, medicine, and construction materials in the strip, where unemployment is now about 40 percent.
Many in Europe backed the September 2009 Goldstone report, which detailed what it said was evidence of possible Israeli war crimes in Gaza.
Yet whether European states have any clout with Israel is questionable.
European officials have stridently opposed Israeli settlement expansion that continues to create “facts on the ground” in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Most economic and peace initiatives between Europe and Israel have been dormant since the Gaza war.
Israel would like closer ties to the European Union, but the process is on hold pending a lifting of the blockade on Gaza.
Last fall when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanhayu came to Paris and heard strong words from President Sarkozy on Israeli settlement activity, it was understood in diplomatic circles that neither French or European positions were a main concern of the Israeli leader.
The Israeli attack is “a very big deal and contributes to further delegitimizing the Israeli regime across the European publics … but there isn’t a lot of leverage either way. The key player in this is the United States,” says London-based legal specialist Anthony Dworkin of the European Council of Foreign Relations.
United Nations chief Ban Ki-Moon, and the UN Security Council, have both called for an investigation and the release of some 480 crew and passengers still held in Israel. Turkey as a NATO member has called for a meeting of that body, since at least four Turkish nationals were killed.
French intellectual Bernard-Henri Lévy, considered in recent years to be part of a new set of pro-Israel thinkers in France, was in Israel Monday, where he participated in a debate with Israeli minister for culture Limor Livnat, saying that the raid on the ships and the publicity, “is more devastating for Israel than a military defeat.”
Mr. Moisi says the attacks play into a campaign to delegitimize Israel, but adds that “the main actor in the campaign is the Israeli government itself …. Israelis need to rethink dramatically what they are doing, but the problem is that what they are doing is very much who they are. The killings yesterday at sea didn’t make sense in international terms. But in Israel, in political terms, it did make sense.”