BRUSSELS – Apart from a few visits to a limited number of capitals and preciously few calls to brief continental leaders, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has not paid much attention to Europe. Nor do ministers in his government walk the extra mile to get close to Israel’s largest trade partner. “Such neglect will cost us dearly in the future,” warns Harry Kney-Tal, Israel’s ambassador to the European Community.

Kney-Tal, 58, who held senior diplomatic posts in the U.S. and elsewhere as an Israeli diplomat, completes his term in Brussels in a few weeks. Preparing to return home, he’s worried and frustrated. The political and intellectual gap between Israel and Europe is widening he says. Without corrective steps, Israel is liable to end up boycotted as a pariah state, like South Africa in the days of apartheid. As he sees it, Israel has done little, if anything, to forestall this eventuality.

European Union states, and Belgium in particular, have in recent years turned into trouble spots for Israeli diplomats. Anti-Semitic attacks against Jewish targets, coupled with vocal, strident support for the Palestinian Authority and vehement criticism of Israel’s military activity – such trends, and others, appear to reflect a one-sided, hostile viewpoint. Tendentious, negative treatment of Israel in the media reinforces this impression. Commentators, particularly on Israel’s right, often argued that Europeans criticize Israel in the name of lofty moral principles which veil what is little more than resurgent anti-Semitism. This view is backed by some U.S. officials.

A few months ago, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell was quoted saying that anti-Semitic phenomena in Europe are “manifestations of repressed emotions, ones which were always present in Europe, but which were concealed in the aftermath of World War II.” Such views are superficial and one-sided, Kney-Tal believes. They lead to a faulty understanding of European Union dynamics and goals.

Kney-Tal adds that relations between Europe and Israel have also worsened because the EU leadership “recoils from information which contradicts its value systems and perceptions, some of which are based on stereotypes” regarding Israel, the dispute and the Middle East.

Perceptual Gap

A clear illustration of the perceptual gap between Israel and the EU involves the connection between Palestinian incitement and suicide attacks. “Both Israel and the Europeans denounce incitement,” Kney-Tal explains. “But when it comes to the meaning of the phenomenon, the sides express differing interpretations. In Israel, a close link is made between the school texts, media reports, official statements, mosque sermons – and suicide attacks. In Europe, this interpretation is totally rejected. We recognize that there is terror, the Europeans tell us, but their reference is to terror attacks like those of the Catholic underground in Northern Ireland, or the Basque underground in Spain: these were aimed mostly at political figures or symbols of government, and were not designed to kill indiscriminately, as happens in our case.” Often terrorists in Western Europe give advance warning about where explosives have been put, in order to limit casualties.

“Up to September 11,” Kney-Tal says, “the Europeans would use the term `cycle of violence’ in the Israeli-Palestinian context. In their view, it wasn’t clear which side initiated violence; nor was this issue of who started it very important. There is an attack and then a response, which inevitably leads to another attack and so on. They didn’t attribute special import to suicide attacks; they viewed them as a local Israeli problem.

“We, of course, saw things differently: there is a process of incitement, which causes terror attacks and, then, escalation of violence. There were also differences of opinion regarding incitement in Palestinian schoolbooks. We warned about the phenomenon; they promised to look into it. Their findings differed from ours. They wanted to show that incitement in Palestinian school texts was disappearing. We said: take a closer look, that’s not the case. But they’re not conscious of nuances which are very sensitive issues for us. That’s not because they are anti-Israel; it’s because they relate to the issue on an emotional plane which differs entirely from our own.”

The Europeans, says Kney-Tal, after having reached a rational decision in favor of reconciliation, and having lived for six decades under peace and economic prosperity, have a problem in grasping Israel’s difficult plight. “After the Second World War, Europe decided to abandon the use of force as a means to resolve disputes, and to set up the European Union, which operates on the basis of shared interests…. What drives them [the Europeans] crazy is states in the world like the U.S. and Israel, which don’t recognize purely rational-legal rules of the game, and which believe that there are situations which require them to exercise their right of self-defense by resorting to the use of massive military force. The Europeans don’t believe in a zero-sum game; instead, they try to cultivate interests shared by all the sides, while trying to create the widest possible common denominator.”

After two devastating world wars, Kney-Tal says, Europe doesn’t want to believe that there are situations in which arrangements can’t be forged by negotiations. It has succumbed to cognitive dissonance: were the Europeans to indicate agreement with the claim that the Palestinian Authority uses incitement, and that such incitement leads to irrational actions such as suicide attacks, such agreement would contradict the manner in which the situation has been analyzed up to now, and the way they have wanted to view matters.

“They simply cannot accept this turn of logic – incitement leads to suicide attacks. Such acceptance would entail rejection of the creature they’ve created, the Palestinian Authority, an entity established largely through European assistance and funding,” Kney-Tal says.

The European Union is proud that it enabled the Palestinian Authority to survive in recent years, in a period when Israel enforced severe economic sanctions against it.

“Their claim is that they haven’t done so because they are especially altruistic, but instead because they’ve understood – unlike Israel, and now unlike the U.S – that the legal Palestinian framework needs to be preserved in the long term, and that this system is headed by a leader, Arafat, who was elected legitimately, in order to guarantee negotiations, and progress in the diplomatic process,” Kney-Tal says. “In other words, the Europeans are basically telling us we know better than you, because we’re not so involved emotionally in this story, and we can look at the situation in a sober, detached, neutral way, relating to the two sides equally. Thus, they are extremely critical of the American position, which is so supportive of Sharon and Israel’s government.”

“The dispute with Europe,” explains Kney-Tal, “worsened in tandem with the degenerating crisis with the Palestinians… For us, it became clear that the rational negotiation framework, which was constructed in the Oslo process and which featured gradual progress for both sides toward the establishment of two states for two peoples, went awry, and collapsed. The Europeans have a different view.”

The EU has refused, and continues to refuse, to play any part in a process that might lead to a collapse of the Palestinian side. Such a process, the EU believes, would paralyze the diplomatic process, and create a situation of absolute terror and anarchy.

“Such a state of chaos is the exact opposite of what Europe wants right now,” says Kney-Tal. “Europe assumes that if the Palestinians will, in the end, have a state, then they would be involved in building their nation; and that is why the PA has to be preserved at all costs, if the Palestinians are to have such a role. For years, they [the Europeans] were apathetic both to our appeals calling for reforms in the PA, and to our claims that incitement leads to attacks and that EU assistance allows Arafat to divert money to terror. The challenge, as they see it, is to prove that these claims are unfounded, and that we are basically exploiting such charges manipulatively in order to force them to sever their assistance, and turn their backs on the PA.”

For the Europeans, “the rational negotiating process comes before everything else. It has to continue, come what may, because once we make it to the end of the process, and a solution is forged, then a new era of healing will arise, and the time will be ripe for really dealing with incitement. In other words, [Europe’s view] is that fundamental, root problems must be dealt with first, and then their symptoms can be addressed. And, as they see it, the root cause of the dispute is the occupation. Take care of the occupation, they say, finish it, and then one of two things will happen: either there will be quiet, or we will understand that there’s no quiet because the Palestinians have wider goals. We say the opposite: We can’t deal with the root problems without first taking care of their symptoms. In this respect, the difference [in interpretations] is vast.”

Europe remained adamant, Kney-Tal explains, even when the Camp David and Taba talks broke down. “This was a rational process; the sides sat around a negotiating table. But then it became clear that this [the talks] doesn’t work; but they refused to accept this could be so. In a way, they were in a state of denial. At first, they had to be satisfied with versions offered by Ehud Barak and Shlomo Ben-Ami. A year later, a counter version propounded by former Clinton adviser Robert Malley came out, refuting Israel’s claims. The French loved it. His articles were translated instantly and circulated in the media. They accorded with the world view which held that there are two sides, and responsibility for the failure rests equally with both. Once again, this European view reflected a rationalist approach to conflict resolution.”

As Kney-Tal sees it, those in Israel who present themselves as belonging to the peace camp have helped the Europeans abide by their refusal to draw a logical connection between incitement, funding and suicide terror attacks. These Israelis say claims about incitement leading to terror belong to the right-wing, which wants to topple the PA. The European Union relates to the peace camp as a potential partner for the continuation of dialogue with the Palestinians, Kney-Tal says.

Attitude change

During the last year, after the September 11 attacks in the U.S. and the steep rise in the number of suicide attacks in Israel, the European Union’s tone and approach have changed. “There has been some progress in the EU’s position,” Kney-Tal says. “They are talking now explicitly about taking action against Palestinian terror… They are more balanced, and even express solidarity with Israel. The list of terror organizations deemed illegal by the EU has grown, and now includes Hamas’ military wing, and Islamic Jihad. Recently, they added eight Palestinian and Arab organizations, including the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. Of course, in order to maintain balance, they added the [Jewish] Kahane Hai and Kach groups. They also toughened up terms for the conferral of money to the Palestinians, and tightened supervision of this funding.”

Kney-Tal is worried about a new generation of Western European leaders who grew up on on the Palestinian-Arab narrative. “That narrative, which is reinforced by Israeli or former Israeli researchers, has nearly totally taken over the academic, polticial and media discussion of the issues,” he says. “It is appropriate to the popular world view in Europe nowadays, which is pacifist and post-modernist, full of guilt toward the former colonies and full of sympathy for oppressed nations demanding self-determnation. It also serves electoral interests as well as the traditional interests of realpolitik, which takes up a large part of EU policy.

At the same time, he fears, there is a an accelerating process of delegitimization of Israel, which is gradually being perceived – though at this stage only in intellectual circles, but the trend will grow – as a crude, brutal, and racist country that tramples on civil rights.

“I’m worried about the fact that Israel and Europe have not been able to build a framework which enables and facilitates Jewish-Christian dialogue,” says Kney-Tal. “The Europeans are building frameworks for deep and profound discussion only with those Israelis whose viewpoints are close to their own, with Israelis who justify the EU line and thereby provide moral validity to the European position. They [Europeans] understand neither Israel’s reality, nor Israel’s rich cultural diversity.

“The second problem is the absence of an intellectual dialogue. Academics in Israel are keeping mum, and I’m worried that the intellectual elite [in Israel] still hasn’t grasped that its in the same boat: should Israel be engulfed by the waves, it, too, will go down. I remain flabbergasted that some academics from Israel signed a European petition calling for the severance of scientific and cultural connections with Israel.”

As Kney-Tal sees it, Israel has no choice but to “draw Europe into a serious, genuine dialogue, one which will deal not only with ongoing events, but also with deeper levels. That’s what is really lacking. Our relations with Europe are asymmetrical, due to our small size and their large one. This asymmetry has to be converted into a different sort of cooperation, one unlike what we have had up to now. We must initiate this; we need to sharpen the messages, and reach understandings based on shared interests in security and democracy.”

This article ran in Ha’aretz on August 22, 2002