Vaiju Naravane

At the critical moment of decision making, internal contradictions come to the fore and Europe appears to drag its feet.

OF ALL the international crises confronting it, the European Union expends most of its diplomatic and financial resources on the permanent running sore that is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For almost 30 years now, particularly since the Venice Declaration of 1990, in which the EU emphasised "the right of Israel to live in security" and the "legitimate rights of the Palestinian people," the European body has lost no occasion to manifest its presence and underline its desire for a peaceful settlement. In fact, the EU has made the Middle East crisis a litmus test for the success of its foreign policy with a strong double presence expressed essentially through the financial assistance it gives the Palestinians in a bid to rally them to the peace process, and by its incessant calls for the respect of international law on the basis of which a negotiated settlement can be found.

But the EU has been singularly unsuccessful in carving out a major role for itself. On the economic front the pan-European body has been unable to make a significant contribution to the development of the region, in perpetual turmoil because of the unending cycle of violence. And on the political front, despite the efforts of its foreign policy chief Javier Solana, the EU has been unable to overcome the divisions among its most active members France, Germany, and Britain which, although able to reach some agreement on the principles involved are unable to adopt a common line on how to go about applying them.

Because of its delicate juggling act designed to please all of Europe's principal actors, the EU's discourse on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict sounds hollow, full of pious sentiments but devoid of any real substance. When there is relative calm in Gaza and in the West Bank, these ambiguities remain eclipsed. But when the quotidian violence escalates, as now, to full-blown conflict levels, they give rise to suspicion, even discredit. At the critical moment of decision making, internal contradictions come to the fore and Europe appears to drag its feet.

Israel's refusal to agree to an immediate ceasefire and halt its bombing of Lebanon has left most European governments in a state of impotent hand-wringing. With the notable exception of Britain's Tony Blair who has resolutely thrown his lot with the Americans, most EU nations are in favour of an immediate cessation of hostilities. In the West Asian crisis, Europe faces a painful dilemma: if it does nothing, it appears useless; but any attempt to act shows up its internal weakness.

Dorothee Schmid, a researcher at the French Institute of International Relations, says: "Europe is not actively looking for a coherent Middle East policy. The EU is content with a certain presence and it is unlikely that this notion of being present will be transformed into a well defined policy anytime soon."

This "dithering" is described as "sheer cowardliness" by Viviane Forrester, writer, philosopher, and political activist, author of the worldwide bestseller The Economic Horror, who recently published another incendiary book called Le Crime Occidental (The West's Crime). "Of course the West could do something if it really wanted to. The fact is it does not wish it otherwise," she told this writer in a telephonic interview.

Victims of history

Ms. Forrester, now in her 70s, goes back through time and history in an attempt to unravel what now appears to be the one of the most knotty political problems the world has witnessed. "Both Palestinians and Israelis are the victims, not of one another, but of history. European history, to be precise, in which neither played the role of victim or oppressor. The crux of the problem goes back to Europe's thriving anti-Semitism of the 19th and early 20th centuries, an anti-Semitism alive and kicking even today," she says.

The West, Ms. Forrester says, behaved despicably towards the Jews, refusing systematically to help the victims of Nazism not only before and during the Second World War but also after the war ended. "Europe conveniently shifted the burden on to the Palestinians, themselves strangers to the Holocaust, and condemned the Jews to becoming intruders. Israel should stop looking at the West as its protectors but understand what has been done to the Jews by a West keen to rid itself of the Jewish question," she says.

Ms. Forrester urges a re-examination of the origins of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the shadowy complicity of Europe in carving out a Jewish homeland away from Europe, the role played by the father of Zionism Theodore Herzl, bourgeois journalist and bon vivant who, after the horrors of the Dreyfus Affair, decided the Jews needed a homeland where united as one nation they would never again have to suffer pogroms and other exactions.

"The support the Zionist project received from the powerful of this world does not surprise me. They were delighted to be rid of the Jews and the culminating point in the post-Hitler era was the creation of a ghetto for the Jewish nation," points out Ms. Forrester. She says it was of prime importance to respect the dignity of the Jews where they always lived, not in a faraway, artificially created state. Anti-Semitic Europe got rid of its guilt by sacrificing the Palestinians. The real war against Nazism never took place, she avers. Former Nazis continued to survive, live in peace, even hold administrative posts in a Europe until the 1970s in France and other countries.

"Let us examine the actions of the great European powers. Which country raised its voice against the re-arming of Germany after 1934? And what of the famous Jewish quotas? After 1937 no one wanted to shelter the Jews; the French Foreign Minister Georges Bonnet went so far as to reassure Ribbentrop that German Jews would not be welcome in France. In 1938, 33 nations were to increase their immigration quotas for Jews who were persecuted by the Nazis. All except Denmark and The Netherlands refused; the first to do so being the U.S. Western democracies declared themselves opposed to Nazism yet they allowed the worst to happen. The arguments are always the same we did not know the extent of Nazi crimes. This inaction led to a feeling of guilt after the war and it is this guilt that prevents the West from taking a firmer line with Israel," she says.

Ms. Forrester's book shows that Western powers are directly responsible for the Israel-Palestine conflict and that their attitudes continue to be coloured by the original crime that of failing to fight the Nazis and of sacrificing the Palestinians in order to assuage their own guilt.

Ms. Forrester's thesis has of course been roundly criticised by Israeli extremists who say that neither the Jews nor the Arabs were dumb robots with whom the Western powers did as they liked. However, even they agree that she has highlighted certain very unpalatable facts about the real reasons for the West's support for the creation of Israel in the Palestinian lands, and not somewhere in Europe where the worst crimes against the Jews were committed.

Today Europe continues to be divided. Germany's extreme guilt effectively prevents it from taking a critical view of Israeli actions. In France, which is home to the largest Jewish population in Europe as well as the largest Arab population on the continent, the tendency is to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.

French President Jacques Chirac's most recent formula for peace reflects this desire to please and placate both sides. "In this conflict the responsibility is evidently shared. What is certain is that the method used, the strikes against Gaza, on the one hand, and against Lebanon, on the other, are, in my view, disproportionate. I do not believe there can be a military solution to this conflict. A ceasefire must be negotiated, on the one hand between the Lebanese government and the Hizbollah, and between the international community, Israel and Lebanon on the other. ... One cannot change regions by force. This crisis is the fruit of a very long and complex history. We are no longer in the situation in which we found ourselves in 1982 or even 1996. The situation has evolved. There has been the war in Iraq and its consequences have still to play themselves out. This has shifted the frontiers in this region and I believe made things more worrying."

The Europeans evidently do not see eye to eye with the Americans on the right time to bring in a ceasefire, or on qualifying the Hizbollah as a terrorist organisation that must be vanquished before any discussions can take place. When asked if Hizbollah was a terrorist organisation, Mr. Chirac said: "It is not at this moment, when we are trying to bring about a return of the Hizbollah into the Lebanese mainstream and its transformation into a political party that such questions should be raised."

Finding a solution to the current impasse with Israel hitting out on two fronts amid massive world condemnation, with the Lebanese Prime Minister describing Hizbollah as "nationalists," with Iran and Syria igniting the conflict from the sidelines, and with U.S. designs for the region that go beyond the simple establishment of a ceasefire is going to be extremely difficult.