Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Europeans elect a new parliament -- What it means for Israel

Europe votes


Israelis tend to look straight past nearby Europe as we cast our eyes pensively toward Washington. For obvious reasons, we're apt to worry more about whether Barack Obama loves us than whether European Commission President José Manuel Barroso does.

Yet, as Prof. Sharon Pardo of Ben-Gurion University reminds us, Israel is situated not along the Atlantic, but the Mediterranean coast, making Europe "our immediate and natural ally."

So when Europeans elect a new parliament, as they did on Sunday, it behooves Israelis to take notice, not because the new legislature will be more sympathetic toward us - it won't - but because our relations with Europe are supremely important: Most of what we import comes from Europe, and that's where most of what we export goes.

THE CONTINENT finds itself in a malaise. The worldwide economic downturn hit it even harder than America. National and ethnic chauvinism is on the rise. The hope that the 27 EU countries, combined population 491 million, would by now be a single supra-national entity has been bitterly dashed. Indeed, as The New York Times reported recently, many Europeans think that when it comes to the economy, the EU is part of the problem, not the solution.

Only 43 percent of 375 million eligible voters participated in the parliamentary elections, compared to 62% in 1979. Parties that say the EU is on the wrong path, or more trouble than it's worth, gained while those affiliated with Britain's beleaguered Labor Party, Germany's Social Democrats and France's Socialist Party did poorly.

The new EU parliament will have 736 members, the single largest bloc staying with the European People's Party (264). The EPP is center-right: pro-EU (unlike the Euro-skeptical British Tories) and pro-free market.

Lamentably, on Israel, the EPP holds to the dominant "pro-Israel" European line which, in practice, shows little empathy for this country's unique security predicament. While the EPP embraces the Quartet's position on negotiations with Hamas, it still wants Israel to lift an embargo which limits the type of goods that can enter the Strip.

The election also sent a number of far-Right and anti-immigrant parties to parliament, some of them anti-Jewish. The British National Party won two seats. Jobbik - the Movement for a Better Hungary, a self-described "radically patriotic Christian party," won one or two seats.

Not all the fringe parties are anti-Israel. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, whose Freedom Party is stridently opposed to continued Muslim immigration, is actually staunchly pro-Israel.

ISRAEL'S critics in the EU are working diligently to torpedo trade relations with us. They are trying to engineer boycotts against Israeli fruit, vegetables and olive oil, on the dubious grounds that these goods are produced by settlers on "occupied Palestinian land." If successful, the critics will be pushing for broader economic, scientific and cultural sanctions to force Israel back to the hard-to-defend 1949 Armistice Lines. To be fair, some honestly believe that doing so will help Israel and bring peace.

Out of an annual EU Commission budget of 120 billion euros, hundreds of millions flow to Palestinian projects. Needless to say, no one contemplates using this leverage to encourage a less intransigent negotiating position on the part of Mahmoud Abbas. Yet significant monies are also directed to Israel-based advocacy groups working to make Israeli policies more compliant.

Israel's relationship with the EU is governed by an Association agreement, but progress on renewing and upgrading relations has come to a halt in order to pressure the Netanyahu government. The EU is also displeased with how Israel battled Hamas in Gaza. The EU supports Israel's right to protect its civilians - so long as this can be done without jeopardizing Palestinian civilians.

THIS WEEK'S EU elections portend no policy shifts on Israel, but they do remind us that as important as ties are, we no longer share the same values. The ethos of the EU is for solving conflicts through negotiations and for the free movement of persons. Though key EU officials are intimately familiar with our security situation, they profess not to be able to fathom why a template that works so well in Europe is unfeasible here - to put it mildly.

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