An Interview with Gerald Steinberg
“In the past decades Europe has tried hard to impact Arab-Israeli peace negotiations and diplomatic processes in the Middle East. One has to ask oneself why it has been unable to make a successful contribution, and whether there is any possibility for this to change.”
Gerald Steinberg, who teaches political science at Bar-Ilan University, answers his own question. “Europe’s failure in the Middle East is directly connected to the way it filters perceptions of Israel and the Arab-Israeli conflict. Many Europeans see Israel through the lens of anticolonialist rhetoric. They perceive Israel as the representative incarnate of the West, its colonialism, imperialism, and behavior throughout the Second World War. Europe projects its own past onto Israel, and as a result the Palestinians become its victims.”
Applying Irrelevant Images
“European policy since the 1970s has tried to square very basic contradictions and generally failed in doing so. After many troubled years the Balkans are now more or less under control, due to the presence of a large NATO force. But the southern Mediterranean, which Europe considers to be on its doorstep, is a major source of threat and instability. Europe wishes to solve this by having the Middle East conform to European social, cultural, and political standards. At the same time, it doesn’t want the southern Mediterranean people to immigrate to Europe and overwhelm it. This is a source of ongoing tension.
“In Europe there is a dominant social climate where the continent sees itself as ‘postconflict,’ ‘postnationalist,’ and multicultural. Another frequently used expression in the discourse is ‘post-heroic.’ Europeans often try to universalize these images by mistakenly applying them also to the Middle East. But they are irrelevant to the ethnonational conflicts in this and other regions, and they may also reflect a passing phase of European culture.
“Europe thus wants to impose its own perceived reality on the rest of the world. In conflict regions, such as the Middle East, this approach can only lead to problems. Zionism is a nationalist movement and not a colonial one. When Israel is forced to confront violence, it cannot avoid a military response without inviting destruction. This attitude is very difficult for Europe to accept since for the European Community to function successfully, nationalism must be constrained and violence avoided. But the European conditions are far from universal.”
“Many in European politics, academia, the media, and the NGOs use almost identical semantics. These four elements of society parallel each other, and work together as well, reinforcing each other in the overall attack on Israel. Analysis can start with any one of them. When various European Union representatives and diplomats condemn Israel they use standard vocabulary such as ‘excessive force,’ ‘violation of human rights,’ or ‘violation of international law.’
“A typical example of this is Chris Patten, a former European External Relations Commissioner who regularly condemned the Israeli antiterror operations. Commenting on Operation Defensive Shield after the 2002 Passover bombings, Patten accused Israel of ‘trampling over the Geneva Convention….’ 1 In response to Arafat’s terror campaign, Patten also reminded diplomats that ‘the Palestinians have totally legitimate political concerns.’ 2 Perhaps the only significant European national leaders who did not follow this approach are British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.”
Consulting Israeli Extremists
“Europeans often consult Israeli extremists to understand Israeli society. These individuals reinforce their distorted images. Journalists far removed from the Israeli mainstream, such as Amira Hass and Gideon Levy of the daily Haaretz, get European prizes. Levy is an anti-Zionist, while Hass uses the same language and supports the European perception of Israel as the colonialist force with the Palestinians as its victims. Akiva Eldar, another highly ideological journalist from Haaretz, is also frequently quoted. There are many conferences in Europe where Israel is ‘represented’ by an extremist academic, Ilan Pappe, a post-Zionist and a vocal advocate of the postcolonial ideology that ‘Israel was born in sin.’
“One wonders whether the Europeans who invite these radicals know that they are entirely unrepresentative of Israel. Is it a conscious manipulation on their part? Do the conference organizers, who give these people very visible platforms, know that they create an inherently false image of Israel? It is difficult to determine whether they ignore the truth or whether these are cases of self-delusion.
“These European actions take place against the background of a major difference between the American and European discourse. In the United States there is an intense debate on issues such as democracy in the Middle East, the Iraq war, and Arab-Israeli relations. Anyone who takes a strong position on these issues has to be able to defend it when challenged. However, in Europe, particularly in academia, there is mainly one uniform narrative of Middle East history. If someone wishes to express another view he or she is rarely given the opportunity.
“In this environment, it is also very difficult to question the multiple European myths. In view of its history, Europe perhaps cannot even afford an honest debate. Many Europeans are in a postrealist stage. They have an unquestioned belief in the ideas of progress, human and political evolution, and that international law will solve conflicts. To put it academically, they are adherents of Kantianism. This optimistic theory of achieving ‘perpetual peace’ through mutual agreement has become very dominant in Europe. There are, however, some exceptions to this approach, for instance when France talks about its security and nuclear policy. Another example can be found in the conservative wing of British culture. But these dissenting voices are rarely heard.”
The Role of the NGOs
Steinberg edits the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs’ NGO Monitor, which aims at exposing the political aims of nongovernmental organizations that pretend to be exclusively humanitarian and universal in nature. His investigations have led him to state: “The key anti-Israeli policies are emphasized by powerful European NGOs.
“For many intents and purposes, among the attackers of Israel, the NGOs are the most independent and least subject to external monitoring. Post- Cold War European politics emphasize the role of civil society, which means the nongovernment sector. NGOs are the primary representative of civil societies. They are often funded by government agencies and given tasks by governments such as providing humanitarian aid around the world. They do so very prominently in Gaza and the Judean-Samarian regions of the West Bank.
“About one and half a billion Euro from the EU’s budget, go annually to various NGOs for what are called ‘civil society tasks.’ In addition there are a significant number of private NGOs – not set up and run by the government – that get government funding. Many of these are active in Palestinian issues. For example, Christian Aid in the UK has a budget of over 80 million pounds sterling. Its policy and campaigns consistently blame Israel for Palestinian suffering, while barely mentioning Palestinian terrorism and corruption. The Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists is another wealthy, extreme anti-Israeli NGO. It has a very formal and legitimate-sounding name, but is essentially a propaganda organization.”
Oxfam and Galand
Steinberg also refers to Oxfam, an international consortium of twelve branches based largely in Europe that claim to provide humanitarian aid. They also pursue a strongly anti-Israeli political agenda.: “Oxfam Belgium became notorious in 2003 after producing an anti-Israeli poster based on the theme of the blood libel. Pierre Galand, a Socialist senator in Belgium and leading member of the NGO network that propels the radical and pro-Palestinian agenda in Europe and the United Nations, gained public visibility while heading Oxfam Belgium for three decades.
“Galand is involved in many different political NGOs, and is the European chairman of the Coordinating Committee for NGOs on the Question of Palestine (ECCP), a Brussels-based association of NGOs cooperating with the UN Committee on the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. He is also president of the Forum des Peuples NGO and the Belgo-Palestinian Association. Using these platforms to promote his political agenda, wrapped in the rhetoric of human rights, Galand continues to refer frequently to the Vietnam War, illustrating the political evolution of the NGO community.
“Save the Children is another powerful NGO active in the UK and Sweden, with branches elsewhere. This group accompanies its fundraising for programs to assist the Palestinians with a highly distorted history of the conflict, told entirely through an Arab lens.”
The EuroMed Program
“Many of these NGOs are linked together in the EuroMed Human Rights Network (EMHRN), an official body funded by the EU’s Barcelona program. It is active in circulating press statements, preparing reports, lobbying and advocacy programs. All this is part of what Europe calls its EuroMed Civil Society activity.
“The Euro-Mediterranean partnership was created through the 1995 Barcelona Conference. There the EU began trying to develop a systematic relationship with the countries in the southern Mediterranean. It sought to develop formal trade links leading toward various types of association agreements with the EU.
“The EU’s aim was that this program would enhance economic development in the southern Mediterranean outside Europe, mainly North Africa. This in the hope – or illusion – that it would prevent or at least slow down large-scale immigration from these countries to Europe. The initiators could not say: ‘Of course we do not want any more Algerian or Moroccan immigrants.’
“In this framework, there was also a strong effort to bring the Palestinian Authority, Syria, and Israel into a relationship with the EU. But in retrospect, little has been accomplished, and I wonder whether it is in Israel’s interest to be involved. The Euro-Mediterranean framework channels Israel’s relations with Europe through the Barcelona Conference lens, emphasizing dimensions such as aid, economic and humanitarian assistance, civil rights, and so forth. These issues are not the dominant ones Israel pursues in its relationship with Europe. And the political implications of this single approach – putting Israel on a par with Syria, Morocco, Egypt, etc. – are neither useful nor desirable for Israel.”
The EU: Prime Funder of the Propagandists of Hate
Steinberg elaborates on some of the more negative European actions in the Middle East. “For example, the European bureaucrats often say that they are funding NGOs in Israel, which are concentrating on Palestinian or Israeli Arab grievances, as part of the Barcelona process. They focus their support on groups such as Adallah, or Al Mezan, which is based in Gaza. Both put forward exclusively Palestinian claims and agendas. These organizations are very active in large-scale advertising, press activities, applications to the Israeli Supreme Court and the UN, and play a major role in the political war to demonize Israel.
“In addition, extreme Israeli left-wing organizations receive funding from the EU. Israeli Jews, marginal in Israeli society, such as Jeff Halper are given substantial monies by the EU to propagandize against government policies of Israel, a democratic state. When that was exposed, the European Commission’s Office in Tel Aviv, in particular the former EU ambassador to Israel, Giancarlo Chevellard, became quite angry – EU officials have sought to keep such political activities away from public scrutiny.
“These extremists put forward claims relating to occupation, settlements, violation of Palestinian human rights, and refugee activities. On the Israeli side these include Betselem, Physicians for Human Rights, the Committee against Housing Demolition, Miftah, Itajah, I’lam, Physicians for Human Rights-Israel (PHR-I), and so forth. And we have not yet been able to track them all.
“Many of the Palestinian NGOs were the prime movers of the anti-Semitic demonization campaign at the Durban Conference in September 2001. They introduced and promoted the hate language there. The European Union, and some of its member states, have been prime funders of these NGOs.”
Masking Their Activities
“Very often EU representatives will tell us that they are doing the same as the Ford Foundation does, or the New Israel Fund. The Ford Foundation funds almost all of the same NGOs. The latter often piggyback. They may say to the New Israel Fund: ‘We are bona fide NGOs doing good work. The proof is that we get money both from the EU and the Ford Foundation.’ They will then visit the Ford Foundation and the EU and say: ‘We get money from the New Israel Fund, so we are not anti-Israeli as our critics claim. We are promoting civil and human rights.’ But under the guise and rhetoric of civil and human rights these organizations are hate propagandists, as the NGO meetings in Durban have proven.
“As a result of this process, this system of hate propaganda continues. Whenever there is an Israeli-Palestinian military clash or a response to terrorism, many Western NGOs will immediately condemn Israeli actions. The reaction to Operation Defense Shield in Jenin in April 2002 was the most obvious example of this. Palestinian Minister Saeb Erekat spoke about a ‘massacre’ of five hundred or more Palestinians. The Palestinians propagated this massacre myth, and many Western NGOs promoted it without checking the facts. Amnesty International was particularly blatant on this issue.
“The demonization of Israel as an apartheid state is an idea that probably originated with the Palestinians. Many Western NGOs picked it up and amplified it. These NGOs also played a major role in the UN resolution of December 2003 that brought the issue of the Israeli separation fence to the International Court of Justice. Early in the proceedings in The Hague, they were very prominent in presenting their views that sought to condemn Israel. When the Court issued its advisory opinion, Christian Aid, Amnesty, Oxfam, and other major human rights organizations demanded, like the EU-funded Palestinian groups, that Israel conform to their version of international law. They never used the words ‘advisory opinion.’
“The next demonization phase these NGOs are planning is to have sanctions imposed on Israel. These wealthy, partly state-funded organizations, with no accountability to anyone, could well be at the forefront of this campaign.”
Nontransparency of EU Funding
Steinberg observes that European NGO funding is nontransparent, making information difficult to obtain. “The EU officially preaches transparency to everybody else, yet on this issue its actions are opaque. Most probably they would be embarrassed if the truth was widely known. When the full information concerning funding is revealed, the optimistic scenario is that there will be enough pressure to at least force some sort of retreat and perhaps a code of conduct.
“The EU does not want its central myths questioned, including their pro-Palestinian version of history and claims to be active in the peace process. What the EU in fact has been doing in its funding of both the Palestinian Authority and Middle Eastern NGOs has assisted corruption and resulted in a massive waste of public funds.
“When Members of the European Parliament circulated a petition on investigating the use of the EU funds by the Palestinian Authority, EU Commissioner Chris Patten made a major effort to avoid this and succeeded in keeping the details of the investigation a secret. Some of the more active supporters of this process did not return in the new European Parliament elected in 2004. These included Fran?ois Zimeray from France and Ilka Schroeder from Germany. Others, however, will continue to press this issue. An investigation of funding for hate-promoting NGOs would be a logical next phase.”
Ignoring Anti-Semitism and Terrorism
Steinberg remarks that politicization of NGOs also manifests itself through the substantial issues they have decided not to deal with. For the first two years of Arafat’s terror campaign that began in September 2000, the self-proclaimed human rights groups ignored the violence against Israelis. “In November 20002, Human Rights Watch broke the silence by issuing a significant report on Palestinian terrorism. I am very critical of its contents – which exonerated Arafat for political reasons – but the document was detailed and condemnatory.
“The problem is that this was a single report, which was quickly forgotten in the barrage of attacks on Israeli ‘war crimes.’ Amnesty has only very occasionally condemned Palestinian terrorism, and never in the detail of HRW’s exceptional report. And most other NGOs, including Christian Aid, Save the Children, and all other Palestinian allies, continue to whitewash the latter’s hatred, incitement, and violence.
“These NGOs blame all Palestinian suffering on Israel, instead of on the Palestinians’ own actions. There is no mention of corruption because these organizations have been closely linked with Yasser Arafat and Fatah. Even if some were willing to break from the standard Palestinian political line, they would not say anything that would in any way make them targets. Despite claims to the contrary, they are not universal human rights groups, because if they were they would have recognized the anti-Semitism issue and have dealt with it in some way.
“Christian Aid, Save the Children, Oxfam, the International Commission of Jurists, and so forth take the material of local organizations and reproduce it in their statements. They are powerful bodies. When Christian Aid issues a press release it is usually quoted in The Guardian. It is sent to the prime minister and often referred to in parliamentary debates.”
Christian Aid’s Methodology
Steinberg exposes other aspects of the methodology Christian Aid uses against Israel. “It is defined as a charitable organization. It walks a very narrow line without becoming a blatant anti-Israeli hate-promoting body. British and European societies increasingly tolerate demonization of Israel. Christian Aid in various ways helps to prepare for the next phase of the political war.
“Every year the organization has a Christian Aid week. In 2003, as part of the campaign to obtain donations, it issued a film on its work to help the ‘Palestinian victims of Israeli aggression, Israeli attacks, Israeli occupation.’ That film, if it runs for, say, fifteen or twenty minutes, contains all of four seconds of footage from a Palestinian terror-attack scene, such as a bus bombing. The rest will be interviews with the Palestinians, from the local Palestinian NGOs, talking to Christian Aid about their suffering and the terrible things Israel is doing.
“This is a consistent pattern. Sometimes it will be a film, on other occasions it will be a photo exhibit. Often it will be a press release or a report. It is used to raise money and to justify what Christian Aid does. And the only image is one of Palestinian victimization – at Israel’s expense.
“They are not different in this from Oxfam, or Save the Children. If one confronted Christian Aid they would argue that they are not anti-Semitic or anti-Israeli. They would claim in their defense that they are using UN resolutions and reports of the UN Human Rights Commission (UNHRC). Before every annual meeting in Geneva, these NGOs flood the UNHRC with documents that find their way into UNHRC reports. These recycled reports no longer state: ‘Christian Aid is saying,’ but become official statements of the UNHRC, repeated by the EU and diplomats. This is a very dominant pattern.
“The actions of these NGOs fit into what is called the new anti-Semitism; demonization of Israel where Israeli victims of terror are invisible, and everything Israel does therefore is portrayed as a form of hostility, aggression, violation of human rights. There is no other rhyme or reason for Israeli military actions, which is a key characteristic of anti-Semitism. These NGOs also lack the sensitivity to what the Christian tradition of anti-Semitism has caused. They have found a new way to blame the Jews for evil.”
Steinberg, however, also sees some slight changes and signs of hope. “A major Palestinian NGO, which goes by the acronym of LAW, was a central player in the anti-Semitic hate propaganda in Durban. One of its main leaders is under indictment for having embezzled a significant amount of European money. The Ford Foundation has cut off its funding.
“Some Palestinian groups who want to maintain their funding from the Ford Foundation and the EU have started to erase some of the worst anti-Israeli rhetoric from their websites. Al Mezan is one example.”
Steinberg’s work on the NGO Monitor is gradually making an impact in exposing how supposed human rights bodies are predominantly political operators. “Christian Aid and other NGOs are responding to our material. They are nervous that their image as a charitable organization may be hurt. Christian Aid has indicated that it wants to initiate a dialogue. One has to see whether it leads to anything. Naming and shaming is part of the NGO creed of human rights, of exposing its violators. That is now being applied to these bodies.”
He concludes: “The Internet is an amazing tool. The number of different organizations and frameworks in which our reports get reproduced is increasing. In the United States when funding is being considered for an NGO, the NGO Monitor will often get consulted. There has been, as far as I know, no consultation from any official European body. The European Commission and its Tel Aviv Office have expressed a great deal of hostility toward the work that the NGO Monitor is doing. That in itself is telling.”
Interviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld
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1. Chris Patten, “Comments on the Situation in the Middle East: Interview with BBC ‘Hard Talk,’” Brussels, 10 April 2002. http://europa.eu.int/comm/external_relations/news/patten/sp02_146.htm
2. “Patten Urges Immediate Ceasefire in the Middle East,” 2 April 2002. http://europa.eu.int/comm/external_relations/med_mideast/news/ip02_488.htm
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Prof. Gerald Steinberg is director of the Conflict Management Program at Bar-Ilan University, a fellow of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, and editor of www.ngo-monitor.org. He completed his doctorate in international relations at Cornell University. He serves as an adviser on foreign and defense policy to the Israeli government, and is currently writing a book on the political agendas of the human rights NGO network.