Wednesday, August 09, 2006

View from the Reichstag

Europe's world is one of live and let live


Berlin is a city embarrassingly easy to fall in love with, notwithstandingeverything we know about its history. London, linguistically and politically familiar to an American-born Israeli visitor, is strangely more off-putting.

But whatever their differences, both cities are equally oblivious to whatappears obvious from Jerusalem: Islamists have embarked on a multi-front war against Western civilization. I don't blame the Europeans for not connecting the dots. The hostilities against our shared civilization have been declared in so veiled and anarchic a manner that Europe has a reasonable basis for being in denial.

Today's free and mostly-thriving Europeans are as laid-back as the Islamists are mobilized. They feel they have paid their dues. Europe was the battlefield for the anti-Nazi struggle, while throughout the Cold War the threat of nuclear hostilities hung eerily over both London and Berlin.

So instead of obsessing over the intentions of Muslim fanatics, today'sBritish and German elites are exercised about global warming, banana fungi, and how to construct non-judgmental societies.

Understandably, it's too painful for them to ponder the possibility that, 60 years after Hitler and not two decades after the Soviets were pushed into the dustbin of history,Western civilization is being threatened again.


YOU WOULDN'T sense that peril lurks from taking a stroll through the streets of Berlin. Walk your feet off, as I did, from the Fernsehturm (the giant radio tower built by the East German communists) to Checkpoint Charlie, and from the Tiergarten (Berlin¹s central park) to Potsdamer Platz, and you can¹t stop marveling at how livable and civilized the place is.

Despite their enviable underground transportation system, thousands of Berliners were taking advantage of the sunny weather to commute by bicycle. At a busy four-way intersection near my hotel automobile drivers yielded politely to each other, and to bicyclists and pedestrians.

Europe's world is one of live, and let live.

Only steps from the Brandenburg Gate stands the new, architecturally contentious Holocaust memorial. Jewish-interest sites, including the Judisches Museum, designed by Daniel Libeskind, and the partially rebuilt Neue Synagogue are filled with mostly non-Jewish visitors. To say that today's generation of Germans has been politically socialized to remember the Holocaust is an understatement.

But their socialization has, understandably, focused on the lessons that they as Germans can derive. The preeminent Jewish lessons of the Shoah ­-- that the Jewish people must have a secure homeland, and that Jews must never again depend wholly on the goodwill of strangers ­ are not part of Germany's universalistic Holocaust curriculum.


I'D ARRANGED to meet up with a young German at the Reichstag parliament building, a formidable Middle East specialist whom I had met a few months earlier in Jerusalem. He is a senior staffer with the opposition Green Party and has good Hebrew (having studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's overseas school) as well as a solid command of Arabic.

The Reichstag, now crowned by a glass dome, is a perfect venue for viewing Berlin¹s skyline. An unintended consequence, however, is that in broiling weather the dome feels like the interior of a hothouse.

Wilting as I climbed, I heard from my contact that his party was vigorously urging Chancellor Angela Merkel's government to use its influence with Washington to press for an immediate cease-fire between Israel and Hizbullah. This was even before the Kana tragedy claimed 28 civilian lives.

I protested that we'd hardly achieved any of our war aims: think of the message that an unfavorable and premature halt in the fighting would send to the Islamists, and especially to Iran. Showing weakness would also undermine Germany's efforts to keep Teheran from going nuclear.

Sensing no progress, I tried a different tack: A bad outcome could finishEhud Olmert politically, and he certainly would not be replaced by anyone more accommodating regarding the Palestinians.

My arguments were unpersuasive. What could be more right-wing than what Olmert was doing to Lebanon's infrastructure? Violence, said the German Middle East expert, can only make things worse; you can't achieve your goals militarily. Negotiation is the only way forward.


FUNDAMENTALLY, German elites see the Palestinian issue as the crux of the Middle East conundrum and Hizbullah as a sideshow.

They are resolutely convinced that the Palestinian Arabs are not out to destroy Israel and that our two peoples are destined, with time and patience, to live peaceably sideby side. Indeed, West Germany first invoked the idea of self-determination for the Palestinians back in 1974.

Nevertheless, when it comes to the Middle East, Germany walks on egg shells.

"As Germans," Merkel said last week "we should proceed in this region with utmost caution."

Nor does Berlin want to see NATO involved in our region.

And Germany is unlikely to be part of any European force stationed on Israel's border (though the possibility of Bundeswehr troops patrolling Lebanon's boundary with Syria, to combat Hizbullah arms smuggling, is only slightly moreplausible).

The German Jewish leadership is also not keen on Berlin'sparticipation in any multinational force for Lebanon.


FOR THEIR part, the Greens are disappointed that Merkel, a ChristianDemocrat, explicitly blamed Hizbullah for the war but hasn't also unambiguously joined France's Jacques Chirac in demanding an immediat cease-fire.

In more recent days, her spokesman did complain that Israeli bombing raids have been "exaggerated."

Merkel's Social Democrat Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier has, however, made the requisite European noises about the need for Israel's response to the Hizbullah threat to be "proportionate."

The war is drawing attention to the inherent foreign policy differences among the coalition partners.

Steinmeier, incidentally, has valuable experience in the region, having worked with Lebanese terrorist factions on past prisoner exchanges. It would not surprise if the Germans were now engaged in helpful behind-the-scenes efforts to bring Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev home from Hizbullah captivity.

Berlin's less than robust support for Israel in the current conflict is disappointing, but not unexpected.

Germany does not want to champion Israel's cause inside the EU.

The German government's overriding national interest is to toe the consensus line of the 25-member union.

Still, 40 years after the establishment of diplomatic relations between Germany and Israel, it's distressing that the best one can say about Berlin's policies is that they handily beat those of Paris.

But as the Germans see it, they are trying to be helpful.

Committed to the principle that nations can negotiate their way out of virtually any tight spot, late last week the Foreign Ministry in Berlin tried to mobilize support within the EU to bribe Syria into breaking with Iran (and its Hizbullah proxy) by offering Damascus duty-free access to the EU market.

[Steinmeier is in Israel today having spent yesterday in Beirut]


BACK IN parched London, it was almost painful to behold Prime Minister TonyBlair¹s isolation.

He was being unremittingly derided not just by the media and the Conservative opposition, but by his own cabinet ministers for refusing to break with Washington over George Bush's refusal to demand an immediate cease-fire in Lebanon.

And yet, together with Germany, Britain had been striving mightily to keep the EU from forcing Israel into an untimely cease-fire.

The formulators of public opinion in Britain so critical of Blair range narrowly from befuddled moral relativists to implacable opponents of the Zionist enterprise.

My European sojourn reminded me that nations pursue policies based on a combination of ethos, domestic and regional influences, power politics, historical perceptions and economic interests.

That being the case, there is no magic bullet, no public relations scheme, and no appeal to sentiment that could transform the policies of London or Berlin into those of Washington.

What ultimately turned the tide in US perceptions ­-- what makes this White House different from Ronald Reagan's during the 1982 Lebanon War ­-- was 9/11.

Despite German authorities' worry that Islamists are now preparing an operation on their soil, and the attacks already carried out in Madrid in 2004 and in London in 2005, European decision makers prefer not to connect the dots.

I envy them them their serenity.

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