Retired Israeli diplomat Avi Pazner says that the best way to gain clear insight into European-Israeli relations is by looking at watershed events over the past six decades. Pazner, a former ambassador in Rome and Paris, now chairs the United Jewish Appeal.
Pazner observes that one major aspect of European-Israeli relations derives from the Holocaust, which ended three years before the state of Israel was established. “Many Israelis still bear scars from having lost family and friends. We must realize, however, that Europe provided crucial support after the Shoah, when the state of Israel was created. It may have been largely out of guilt and a desire to atone for the suffering inflicted on the Jews, but major parts of Europe were with us.
“The majority of European countries voted for the UN Partition Resolution in November 1947, which facilitated Israel’s creation. In 1956 another watershed event occurred when Nasser’s Egypt threatened Israel, and Israel fought it in a strategic partnership with France and the United Kingdom.
“In the Six Day War in 1967, there was a deep feeling of sympathy toward Israel among many in Europe. However, after our victory a different perception emerged. It was aggravated in 1973 with the Arab oil embargo, when Europe realized how dependent it was on the Arab world. At that stage, we started to have some tough moments with Europe. During the Lebanon War there were also many problems in relations with the EU. In the early 1990s, however, overall relations improved, particularly after the 1993 Oslo accords.”
Choosing between Sides
Pazner explains further: “Europe’s attitude toward Israel is not structurally problematic. When the EU, however, has to choose between its ‘Arab interests’ and Israeli ones, they clearly favor the Arab side. De Gaulle’s behavior was a paradigm of that. Until the Six Day War in 1967 he maintained close relations with Israel while simultaneously – after the end of the Algerian War – warming up France’s relations with the Arab world.”
Pazner observes: “De Gaulle said more or less that he was forced to choose between the two sides and the Arabs were more important to France than Israel. In this he was a precursor of Europe’s current attitudes.”
Around the same time, De Gaulle also called the Jews “a domineering and arrogant people.” In his office Pazner keeps a caricature from Tim, a well-known French cartoonist. It shows a Jew in concentration-camp clothes in a Napoleon pose, with one foot on barbed wire. The weekly L’Express refused to print it but the daily Le Monde did. Pazner comments: “De Gaulle, by choosing the Arabs over Israel, and with his remark containing anti-Semitic elements of which he may or may not have been aware, laid the groundwork for Europe’s changing attitude toward Israel and the Jews.”
The Arabs Frightened Europe
Pazner reviews other watershed events in European-Israeli relations. “In 1973, the Arabs managed to frighten the Europeans with the major oil embargo during the Yom Kippur War. They followed a smart policy by putting a specific oil ban on the Netherlands. They did so because the Netherlands supported Israel and Rotterdam was the main port for Northern Europe. The impact of the embargo was thus multiplied. As a result, oil prices in Europe rose sharply.
“During the Yom Kippur War, a number of Dutch truck drivers were in Israel. Many Israelis thought they were volunteers. They came because they were hired after a large number of Israeli truck drivers had been mobilized. This created much sympathy in Israel for the Netherlands, a country that had not behaved well toward the Jews during the German occupation. Today the Netherlands is very critical of Israel, even if the present Center-Right government is not as bad as a previous one in which the Socialists were the leading party.
“Since 1973, Europe has followed a policy of appeasement toward the Arab world. This is by nature a generalization. When Peres was prime minister from 1984 to 1986, relations with Europe were rather good. The same was true when Rabin was prime minister for the second time and the Oslo peace process started in 1993. Yet despite this, the European countries continued to vote against us in the United Nations as they had done since 1973.”
France: The Driving Force against Israel
Pazner observes: “Like the fearful reaction to the oil embargo, the Declaration of Venice in 1980 was a watershed event in Israeli-European relations. France was the driving force behind this anti-Israeli statement, which recognized the PLO. France, however, may not have been its only strong supporter. Not all European governments were in favor of the departure from the EU’s neutral position yet they succumbed under pressure. Not only those countries that pushed for the declaration but also those that voted for it have to be held responsible.
“The first Palestinian uprising started in 1987 and lasted until the Oslo accords. By the time of the Gulf War in 1990 it had been largely subdued. Until the uprising the Europeans had more or less accepted what they called the ‘Israeli occupation,’ regarding it as relatively enlightened. Thereafter they no longer had patience for it.
“The great majority of the European media in the 1980s supported the uprising. They presented it as an anticolonial rebellion and ignored its murderous aspects. During the Gulf War, the image changed temporarily. The European media discovered another villain who in their eyes was worse than Israel – Saddam Hussein.”
Italian Prime Ministers
Pazner was Israeli ambassador in Rome from 1991 to 1995. “During those years, Italy had five different prime ministers: Giuliano Amato, Giulio Andreotti, Azeglio Ciampi, Lamberto Dini, and Silvio Berlusconi. Their attitudes toward Israel greatly differed. The Socialist Amato was the most unfriendly, while Berlusconi was and is the most positive toward Israel.
“The Catholic leader Andreotti, who has a negative image in Israel, was somewhere in between. So were the other two prime ministers, who were called in from the Italian National Bank and came from outside the political sphere. The prime ministers after Berlusconi were both from the Left – Roman Prodi and Massimo D’Alema, and followed a pro-Arab policy.”
Prodi would become president of the European Commission in 1999. He also presided over its Conference on Anti-Semitism. Pazner says that Prodi is not anti-Semitic but the combination of his left-wing politics and strong Catholic faith is problematic as far as attitudes toward Israel are concerned. He knows Prodi well and considers that he has little understanding of the nature of Judaism and the Jewish people.
Perceptions of Numbers and Power
Pazner reminisces: “In dinner-table conversations with leading Italian politicians, I realized that they attributed much power to the Jews in an unrealistic way. In Europe, the ideas of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion are still alive. Once, for dinner at home, we had a high-quality selection of Italian politicians and diplomats. One party leader said that he thought there were a million Jews in Italy, another that he was exaggerating because there were not more than half a million. Finally somebody proposed: ‘Let us ask the Israeli ambassador.’ That was remarkable. They, the Italian leaders, were not supposed to know while I, the foreigner, was.
“After all the guesses I did not want to tell them that there were not even forty thousand Jews in Italy. I thought that it didn’t matter whether they knew the truth. If they were so ignorant they might as well think there were more. This could not have happened in France, where the leading political figures are well aware that there are about half a million Jews.
“Such misconceptions are a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the larger people think the community is, the more they take it into account. On the other hand, they make exaggerated statements about economic power. This is enhanced by other falsifying images. On Yom Kippur, many shops in the center of Rome are closed because this is the only day in the year that many Jewish shopkeepers observe. A number of them are in prestigious locations including the Piazza Di Spagna, the Via Del Corso, or the Via Tritone. Hence this closure is very visible.”
During Pazner’s stay in Italy, the 1991 Madrid Conference and the signing of the Oslo accords took place. “At that time it was easy for an Israeli ambassador to be loved in Italy. Most media were supportive, but the Communist dailies L’Unita and Il Manifesto kept attacking us strongly. When Israel expelled four hundred Hamas people to Lebanon, all media were against us.
“Il Manifesto turned Israel into a monster. I convinced L’Unita to publish an article from me entitled ‘Leftists – you don’t understand Hamas.’ It sparked a major discussion as to why the paper had given the Israeli ambassador the opportunity to publish an article. Achille Occhetto, secretary-general of the Communist Party, had to intervene and even that didn’t end the discussions.
“These were good days when Israel’s voice was still heard and people were willing to listen. There were at that time hardly any anti-Israeli or anti-Semitic feelings in Italy. These today are still not so strong compared to many other countries in Europe.
“One of Israel’s problems is that European intellectuals are concentrated mainly on the Left while those on the Right are hardly heard. These left-wingers are supposed to be enlightened and thus listened to. Anti-Semitism, not only in Italy but also in Europe generally, has profoundly permeated these circles.
“The Left has turned the Palestinian cause into a symbol. What started as criticism of Israeli policy has turned into an attack on the country, then on Zionism, and afterwards mutated into anti-Semitism. This phenomenon is not particularly Italian. Many French left-wing intellectuals hold anti-Semitic views.”
Ambassador in France
From 1995-1998, Pazner was Israel’s ambassador to France. “I arrived around the time of Rabin’s murder, which shocked France. An additional upset for most politicians was the election of Benjamin Netanyahu as Israeli prime minister. They had thought and hoped that Peres would be elected. The relationship between Chirac and Netanyahu was not good from the beginning.”
Pazner stresses that personal relations between senior politicians are important for countries. “French people felt the chill of Chirac’s relationship with the Israeli prime minister and wondered why their attitude should be different from that of their president. Chirac certainly did not behave toward Rabin and Peres as he behaved toward Netanyahu.
“Before, the French also did not like Yitzhak Shamir or his policies. Shamir, who became prime minister in 1983 after Menachem Begin resigned, had great love for France. But it was a very one-sided affair. Shamir made it a point to visit the French embassy in Israel every year on the country’s national day, 14 July. Besides the American embassy, it was the only one Shamir went to on a country’s national day.
“In October 1980, on the occasion of the lethal bomb attack on the Paris synagogue on the Rue Copernic, Shamir, who was then Israel’s foreign minister, said: ‘French Jews, do not fear – Israel will defend you.’ This led to a huge outpouring of criticism. The French stated that they would defend the Jews. Raymond Barre, the French prime minister at the time, displayed hidden anti-Semitic feelings when he stated that the terrorists had aimed at the Jews but had killed innocent Frenchmen.
“In the 1970s, Georges Pompidou was very critical toward Israel. Some people think there were personal reasons behind this as he was a former employee of the Rothschild Bank. When Pompidou visited Chicago in 1974, the Jewish community demonstrated against him. Thereafter he refused to meet the Israeli ambassador in Paris.
“One sees the importance of personal relations also in Chirac’s cold attitude toward George W. Bush. It comes on top of the bad relations between the two countries over the Iraq War. The relationship was not ideal during the Clinton presidency but today it is much worse.
“Personal history, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily play a major role in relations. Roland Dumas, French foreign minister under President Francois Mitterrand, reminded me in every conversation that his father had been executed by the Germans for being a Resistance member. Yet he was among the most anti-Israeli French foreign ministers. Another foreign minister, Hubert V?drine, who served in the pre-1992 Socialist government, was anti-Israeli too. One can almost say that there was nothing Israel did that he did not condemn, and nothing the Arabs did that he didn’t praise.”
“In recent years major anti-Semitism has developed in France. It is difficult to determine to what extent it is linked with the French government’s anti-Israeli policy. Initially the French Socialist government and President Chirac didn’t react at all against the anti-Jewish violence. Both Lionel Jospin, the prime minister at that time, and the interior minister Daniel Vaillant were well disposed toward Israel. For the French Jews, however, they did nothing. Instead they tried to evade the problem by defining the anti-Semitic acts as common criminal ones.
“Many Frenchmen received a major shock when in April 2002, in the first round of the presidential elections, the extreme right-wing candidate Jean Marie Le Pen came second after Chirac and eliminated Jospin, the Socialist candidate. Then it was no longer only French Jews but others also who started to wonder in which country they were living.
“Whereas the French had until then usually denied that anti-Semitism existed, in 2002 they started to face up to reality. Chirac might have said in his defense that he was not the prime minister and the government at the time was not his UMP party. The Socialists had no such excuses.”
Pazner says one has to be realistic when assessing Israeli-European relations. “It is a grave mistake to try to understand Europe by simplistically saying: ‘They are anti-Semitic. Nothing Israel does can change it.’ That would be self-defeating. It would turn us into a ‘people that dwells alone’ as an enemy in the Bible said.
“I have been defending Israel all my life and will continue to do so, even when we make mistakes. Our right to exist is stronger than any mistake we can make. At the same time we have been fighting a wave of terrorism and violence brought upon us by our enemies, defending ourselves brilliantly. The very fact that one feels secure in Jerusalem proves that Israel has succeeded in the war on terror.
“When the average person abroad sees IDF operations on television, his sympathy goes to what he wrongly perceives as being the weaker side. Nor does the separation fence, which in some places turns into a wall, look pretty. It is partly thanks to that fence that Israelis can live in peace here, but nobody abroad will applaud you for it. These people do not like what we are doing, which is different from being purely anti-Semitic.
“At the same time one should not ignore that there is substantial anti-Semitism in Europe that manifests itself in many ways. Not only many European Muslims are anti-Semites, some of whom are extremely violent. The Portuguese writer and Nobel Prize winner Jose Saramago, and the Greek composer Mikis Theodorakis, are two prominent European anti-Semites. In the mainstream media one sometimes finds anti-Semitic articles and cartoons. France is very problematic with respect to anti-Semitic violence, but as far as anti-Semitic media are concerned Spain, Belgium, and Greece are much worse.”
Wanting Peace and Quiet
Pazner concludes: “Europe today wants peace and quiet. It wishes to continue to flourish and develop economically. It does not want anything to interfere with this development. When it perceives, very wrongly, that Israeli politics are disturbing that quiet, it blames Israel.
“The Europeans don’t know Israel anymore. The tourists coming to Israel from Europe are mainly Jewish. The depth of ignorance in Europe is such that it creates misconceived ideas about Israel’s aims and policy. Israelis know Europe better as many vacation there. We are close to Europe with respect to culture, history, religion, trade, commerce, and tourism. I think Israel has to invest every effort to try and change the European perception.
“It has been Israel’s policy to keep Europe at arm’s length as far as political involvement in the Middle East peace process is concerned. We have said that if Europe wants to help it can give economic assistance to the Palestinians. The common wisdom is that at the end of the political process there will be a Palestinian state next to Israel. Europe is not so far from us politically and diplomatically in that conception. I wonder whether Israel should not rethink its position, involving Europe more in the political process. In return, the EU may offer Israel membership in one form or another.”