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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

How the European Union’s Attitude Toward Israel Evolved

Filed under: Europe and Israel
Publication: Post-Holocaust and Anti-Semitism

“For a very long time the Europeans’ weakness has been that so often somebody else has to solve their problems. Frequently the United States has had to do so. Yugoslavia and Iraq have been cases in point. It is possible that this will now change as European nations make major contributions to the multinational force that is being deployed on the southern borders of Lebanon after the Second Lebanon War of summer 2006.”

Efraim Halevy is a former head of the Mossad. From 1996 to 1998 he was Israeli ambassador to the European Union in Brussels. The conversation with him takes place on 18 July 2006 while Israel’s war with Hizballah in Lebanon rages (updating was added subsequently). He remarks: “A few days ago, I was in Frankfurt at a meeting where I met Benita Ferrero Waldner, Austria’s former foreign minister who is now the EU commissioner for external affairs.

“She was very busy with the question of what Europe could do concerning Lebanon. Would it intervene? Would it do something? Could it do anything? An EU official participated in the meeting. He heads a department inside External Affairs, in charge of Israel and the Middle East. He was all the time occupied on the telephone trying to work out whether Javier Solana, the EU high representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy would come to the Middle East and who would be the members of the delegation accompanying him.”

Europe’s Actions: At Best an Irritant

Halevy considers all this of little importance. “Europe’s actions during the hostilities have had little or no impact on events as they unfold. At best so far, the EU has been an irritant in the Middle East conflict. It cannot help in the battle with Hizballah, which is a proxy fight with Iran.

“Israel is fighting Iran where it is vulnerable. If Israel succeeds in greatly weakening Hizballah and severely harming its capacity to fire missiles this will be a major setback for Iran’s prestige in the region. Iran, for its own reasons, cannot come to the support of Hizballah whom they supplied with weaponry. It has threatened Israel not to attack Syria but has not come to the support of Hizballah after Israel massively attacked it. All groups who consider themselves clients of Iran must now conclude: ‘The Iranians will not come and save a client in trouble.’ This is one major aspect of the battle in Lebanon.

“When all is over, if Israel had succeeded, the Europeans would have applauded it. If Israel had failed the Europeans would have condemned it. That is the way they have always played it. Had Israel totally destroyed Hizballah, it would have removed a major threat to Lebanese democracy in which the EU has invested. That would have helped Lebanon implement Security Council Resolution 1559, which called for the Lebanese government to have full control of its territory. Had we removed Hizballah’s threat of instability in the region, that would have helped the EU when moving to rebuild Lebanon for a second time. The job would then have been done by Israel. The Europeans should have done this themselves when they invested in Lebanon. Once again somebody else had to solve the problem.”

Reminiscing about 1996

Many current European reactions to Israel’s battle with Hizballah remind Halevy of the time he was ambassador to the EU. “I came to Brussels in January 1996. A few months later Benjamin Netanyahu became prime minister. His election was the result of the many terror attacks at the end of 1995 and beginning of 1996. Netanyahu became prime minister at a time when the confrontation with the Palestinians became a very serious issue. Netanyahu said he would accept the Oslo Agreement, but also followed a different policy than his predecessors toward the Palestinians.”

Halevy says that personal aspects also played a role. “The Europeans had been used to Shimon Peres. He considered himself their great friend and was much influenced by their flattery. I have hinted at this also in my recent book Man in the Shadows. This explains in part why the Europeans disliked the change in government.

“Within a short time, the policies of the Israeli government became rather unacceptable to the EU. Israel, after the many terror incidents, began taking steps to restrict the Palestinian movements and deprive them of certain of their facilities. When Ehud Olmert, then mayor of Jerusalem, opened a tunnel outside the Temple Mount, there was Palestinian violence that ultimately caused loss of life on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides.”

Every Month a Resolution

“Every month the EU Council of Foreign Ministers meets in Brussels. In almost each meeting during that period it passed a resolution censuring Israel for one thing or another. In the EU this was a monthly process: the draft resolution started at a low level. It went up to a medium level and from there to the director-general level. Then it was sent to the European capitals and finally it was approved at the Council of Foreign Ministers. One might call this an EU ritual. The entire month before the next resolution was approved Israeli diplomats throughout Europe were busy trying to prevent, soften, or amend it.

“In retrospect, all this was ridiculous because none of these resolutions had any importance. The same is true regarding the EU resolution adopted a few days ago in Brussels on the crisis in Lebanon. The G8 met in St. Petersburg from 15-17 July. There policy was decided, and not in Brussels or anywhere else.

“Israeli-European relations during my time were complicated. A few weeks after Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, Israel signed a new economic association agreement with the EU. A second agreement concerned Israel joining the fourth European Research and Development program. For Israel to become a member of this, the agreement had to be approved by the European Parliament and by the parliaments of all fifteen member states. This approval came up when Netanyahu was already prime minister. Many in the EU thought this an opportunity to use leverage against Israel concerning its policies in the territories. For Israel this posed a major problem.”

Approval by the European Parliament

“The European Parliament is chosen in various ways by the electorates in  member countries. In the parliament itself, factions are composed on a Europe-wide ideological basis. There were five of these at the time, including conservatives, liberal democrats, and socialists. It was my task to get the parliament to approve the agreement while a significant number of its members had a very negative attitude toward Israel in general.

“Several MEPs also specifically disliked Jews. Without going into detail, some Germans among the Free Democrats had a very problematic World War II past. There were Belgian MEPs from the extreme right-wing Vlaams Blok. One had been an active officer in a Belgian unit that fought together with the Nazis. Some French MEPs belonged to Le Pen’s Front National. Several left-wing socialists had little love for Israel or Jews. There were also some British diehard anti-Jewish conservatives. Most were polite to me but I knew what their real feelings were.

“This major task ended successfully. The European Parliament, surprisingly, passed the European Research and Development program with 265 votes in favor and 4 against. Almost half the approximately five hundred MEPs did not attend the meeting. Thereafter the agreement had to be approved by all national parliaments. This took some time, but also there it passed. For Israel this was a major achievement.

“The Europeans fully realized that this agreement was also advantageous to them. First, Israel had to contribute a significant amount of money annually. Even more important, however, Israeli technology and science are of interest to the Europeans. When Europeans have a practical material interest, their ideological considerations become secondary. This is normal and natural.”

Europe’s Role in the Middle East Conflict

“A second problematic issue at the time concerned the European attitude toward the Palestinians and the European role in our conflict with them. They were a major financial contributor to the Palestinian Authority. Yet politically they had no clout. They thought that since they contributed so much money they should also have a say in what was happening politically. Israel rejected this.

“Manuel Marin, then vice-president of the European Commission was the key European actor involved. He is now chairman of the Spanish parliament on behalf of the ruling Socialist Party and previously had been Spanish foreign minister. Marin said he was much in favor of peace, and was very critical of Israeli policies. He complained all the time that the EU was paying and didn’t get political recognition for this.

“The EU was also, however, paying the Palestinian Authority in a less than straightforward way. They channeled part of the funds semilegally. Some money went directly into Yasser Arafat’s bank accounts. Once I was  meeting Marin when he got a call from the German foreign minister who complained that $25 million, which Arafat got as ‘special emergency funding,’ had been transferred to the wrong account. It went into the general account and should have gone into his private one.”

Halevy describes this in his book: “The commissioner asked the minister for a few minutes’ pause and then turned to me and politely asked me to excuse him because he had to attend to the matter at hand. I left, of course, but not before my host had unburdened himself and had expressed his exasperation at the way he was being forced to cooperate in these matters.”1

Double Standards

“A few years later this matter became a point of discussion in the European Parliament as it became clear that some EU money was being abused. For political reasons the European Parliament decided to hide the real nature of what was happening and prevent a full-scale investigation into this diversion of funds. It voted for a fuzzy form of investigation so that it would not become a major political issue.

“In other words, the Europeans-the parliament and the commission-once again applied double standards to Israel. Toward us they were moralizing. When it came to the Palestinians as far as finance and politics were concerned, they were ‘very understanding,’ to put it in diplomatic language, of the special considerations of how Palestinians handle money.

“Yet another aspect was the EU’s desire to become involved in Israeli-Palestinian political relations. When there were major confrontations they immediately tried to move in and advance various proposals to ‘bring the sides together.’

“One example was when in 1997 David Levy, then Israel’s foreign minister, came to Brussels for a periodic meeting at a time there was a major crisis between us and the Palestinians. The Europeans raised the idea that Arafat should also visit so that they could bring the two sides together. Levy could not avoid the meeting.

“The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg then held the EU presidency. Its foreign minister, Jacques Poos, presided over what became a ridiculous meeting, out of which came nothing. For the Europeans the meeting was relevant even without any substance. I noticed many times that for the Europeans to appear as if they were a factor in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was much more important than playing a real role.”

Halevy describes in his book how Arafat fell asleep during Levy’s speech. Nobody bothered to wake him up. Finally Nabil Sha’ath, the PA foreign minister, responded to Levy’s words.2

The Muslim Issue Emerges

“Ten years ago Europe’s problems with its large Muslim immigration were already emerging. The Europeans complained frequently to us that they were paying a price for Israel’s attitude toward the Palestinians. They claimed that the negative tendencies among the Muslim communities in Europe were fed by their frustration over how the Palestinians were being treated.

“They said that if Israel would treat the Palestinians differently European Muslims would be less hostile and Europe would benefit. They never told us this story directly but dressed it up in a different way. They said that Europe had a stake in Israeli-Palestinian issues because some Muslims were European citizens. Thus the EU was representing the sentiments and aspirations of these citizens in expressing the hope that Israel would take a different position in the conflict.

“I replied that they should face up to the real problems with Muslims in their countries. When I was stationed in Brussels there were growing signs that the approach of many Muslims in Europe was changing. Up to the mid-1990s, most tried to become fully identified with the culture and society of the countries they lived in. They wanted to be more French than the French, or more Dutch than the Dutch.

“In the mid-1990s there was a shift toward a more separate religious identity. Many Muslims maintained their religious approach opposing the secularism of European society. I said to my European counterparts that these were growing manifestations of separatism. They answered that this was an internal European issue and none of my business.

“It was one more among many examples of European double standards. When convenient, they used the same argument in order to get a stake in what was happening in the Middle East. When it was turned against them, they adopted a different stance. This attitude caused frequent displeasure on their part and frustration on mine. They did not want to listen to what was obvious and for which they are now paying a heavy price. I wasn’t too keen to press the point endlessly as my mission in Brussels was not to educate Europeans.”

European Integration and Individual Approaches

“Despite the integration of Europe, every country has its own attitude toward most matters. Their national identities, cultures, and approaches to life differ. So do their financial, judicial, and social systems. Each country has its own army. On the legal side there has been an attempt to harmonize many fiscal aspects and laws that relate to customs and commercial issues, yet there was no attempt to try and harmonize criminal law.

“The only truly harmonized issues concern human rights. The Human Rights Act is a European act. This now has become a problem because in Britain, for instance, it has become a barrier against some steps to combat terrorism.

“This lack of a unified approach has made it impossible to develop a common European policy on the issue of Islam. Each country wanted to maintain its particular approach thinking it was better than that of its neighbors.”

Halevy indicates that in retrospect the Europeans would have done better to take a common approach to this matter rather than trying to create an appearance of a common European foreign and defense policy. “This concept is a misrepresentation because no common policy exists on many foreign issues. There are big differences, for instance, between the French and British on problems such as Iraq, Iran, or even the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“Furthermore, one cannot maintain a common foreign policy on issues relating to Islam if in Europe there is no common domestic policy toward these. The Europeans, however, developed a logic of creating a common denominator between the absurdities of their domestic policies and the pretensions of their foreign policy. That is how I saw it then and how I continue to see it now.

“During my stay in Brussels the European Commission was weak. It was headed by Jacques Santer from Luxembourg, who was both pleasant and feeble. In the end his commission was deposed. Over the years one country was consistently pro-Israeli. The German government of Chancellor Helmut Kohl was very positive toward us, and so were his various foreign ministers such as Hans-Dietrich Genscher and Klaus Kinkel.

“France’s role was highly negative. The French government was not only highly critical of Netanyahu. It also treated his successor Ehud Barak very badly. At each meeting of the Council of Ministers they were the most extreme actor against Israel. Almost all officials at the Quai d’Orsay, their foreign ministry, were negative toward Israel. Our ambassador in Paris made many efforts to change the situation but did not succeed. Hubert Védrine, the foreign minister in the socialist Jospin government, was an outspoken anti-Israeli and so was his right-wing predecessor.”


“Coreper (Comité des Représentants Permanents) is a key organ in the European Union. It is composed of the ambassadors of all EU member states. The German ambassador was very helpful to us and so was the ambassador of Great Britain. At the time the Dutch ambassador was Bernard Bot, the current Dutch foreign minister. He might occasionally make unpleasant remarks about us but in practical matters he was very helpful.

“On the other hand, the French representative in COREPER was outright hostile. Ambassador Pierre de Boissieu is a grandson of de Gaulle and a very arrogant man. When I arrived in Brussels he refused to meet me. He said he did not have to and did not want to waste time on ambassadors from outside the EU.

“Javier Solana, a former Spanish socialist foreign minister is the current EU high representative for foreign relations. At the time he was the secretary-general of NATO. He could be critical of Israel but this should not be confused with him being anti-Israeli. He is a nonconfrontational person who always looks for compromises, diplomatic solutions, and bridging positions. I think in his heart he has a great admiration for Israel’s capabilities and progress. His policy was to avert a situation in which relations between Europe and the Palestinians would deteriorate beyond what he thought was good for the Europeans. Therefore, he continued to maintain a relationship with Arafat long after it was clear that he was promoting terrorism.

“It is to Solana’s credit that when, in 2002, Israel came up with the idea of changing the constitution of the Palestinian Authority, he helped us move it forward. The concept was to empower the prime minister and to turn Arafat into a figurehead. Nowadays, with Hamas in power, we are interested in the opposite, strengthening the president, Mahmoud Abbas against the prime minister. Solana has also been helpful in arranging orderly elections in the Palestinian territories and providing monitors and observers.”

Europe’s Major Mistakes

When asked about the major mistakes Europe made in the Middle East over the past ten years, Halevy replies: “The first one was their political assessment of Arafat. Without the EU he would not have had a financial basis for his administration. This led to their second mistake. The EU approach facilitated corruption inside the Palestinian Authority. The way they channeled their money was both a major waste and an important source of corruption.

“The third EU mistake was that they thought they could lean on Israel. They were subtly threatening economic sanctions and thought that this would push Israel. It caused some concern in Jerusalem but mainly created a bad atmosphere between us. The Europeans thought that by making these efforts they were ingratiating themselves with the Arab world. It was, however, a major miscalculation to think that the Syrians, Egyptians, Jordanians, and others would become Europhiles as a result. Nothing of this kind happened.

“Ten years ago many Europeans had a great ambition to be close to Syria despite the fact that it was a cruel dictatorship. There was great friendship between Syrian president Hafez Assad and German chancellor Kohl. Assad also had close relations with many people around Kohl.

“French president Chirac admired Assad and many other prominent Europeans had a lot of respect or sympathy for him as a person. Every time Israel had a problem with Syria, the French were very sensitive that we did nothing to destabilize Syria or damage its interests. The fact that Assad was a mass murderer who had killed tens of thousands of Syrian civilians was not something that troubled the European leaders at all.”

This leads to the final question, whether Europe is behaving differently now.

Halevy replies: “I think the Europeans are more mature in their assessment of the Palestinians. They don’t try to exert economic pressure on Israel. They don’t allow their monies to be used in the same way as before. They are less pretentious about their political role in the Middle East. The Europeans increasingly recognize the American supremacy and do not try to upstage it too much. It now remains to be seen if Europe will move to leverage its major role in the multinational force in Lebanon into playing a more active and significant part in forging a peaceful future for the war-torn nations of the Middle East.”

1 Efraim Halevy, Man in the Shadows (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2006), 128.

2 Ibid., 126.