European Affairs

How War in the Middle East Roils Transatlantic Relations     Print Email
Rupert Cornwell

There are not one but two Middle East wars. One is the real and bloody struggle in the West Bank and on the streets of Israel's cities, the competing claims by two peoples for a piece of land about the size of New Hampshire, whose resolution seems further off than for decades.

The other is fought with salvoes of words, rather than bullets, and it frequently seems to put Europeans and Americans on opposite sides. It is also somewhat harder to understand. Why is it that the sympathies of the United States and Western Europe so sharply diverge in the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians?

Listen to otherwise temperate American politicians or read some eminent columnists, and you will find Europe branded naïve at best, irredeemably anti-Semitic at worst, for its criticism of the recent Israeli military crackdown in the West Bank. After 50 years of being shamed by the Holocaust, Charles Krauthammer even argued in The Washington Post recently, Europe has completed its atonement and has returned to its favored pastime of kicking the Jews.

For their opposite numbers in Britain, France or Germany, the picture is exactly the reverse. The European commentators assume European intellectual, not moral superiority, denounce Mr. Bush's "simplistic" approach to the crisis, and almost universally believe that foreign policy in Washington is made not by the White House and the State Department, but by an omni-present, all-powerful Jewish lobby.

Let us first dispose of the wilder caricatures. Yes, anti-Semitism exists in Europe, just as it exists in the United States (doubters should study the latest batch of Nixon tapes). But anti-Semitism is not driving European objections to Israel's massive military response to the suicide bombers. Nor is anti-Semitism behind the suggestions that Israeli soldiers committed war crimes in their assault on the Jenin refugee camp.

Conversely, Europeans must accept that a sinister Jewish conspiracy is not shaping U.S. foreign policy. Certainly, the Jewish lobby is hugely in§uential (in April no less than 50 of the 100 U.S. Senators attended the annual meeting of the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in Washington) but right now it is pushing on an open door. U.S. public opinion is overwhelmingly in favor of an Israel perceived as defending itself against terrorism, just as America was obliged to do after the terrorist attacks of September 11.

And what of the "simplisme" charge, so dear to the French? Mr. Bush earned guffaws in Europe by confessing before his Texas summit with British Prime Minister Tony Blair that "my job isn't to try and nuance," when asked whether the Arab/Israeli con§ict might not be interfering with his war against terrorism.

The United States is not always simplistic: try telling that to Bill Clinton, or to his Middle East envoy Dennis Ross, who devoted untold energy and the most sophisticated expertise to the crisis. But the real problem lies elsewhere: it is that since September 11, Washington sees the crisis through a different prism.

The United States has always been close to Israel. There are far more Jews in America than in Europe. America sees Israel as an island of democracy in an ocean of authoritarian and hostile Arab regimes. Israeli military power may have increased hugely since the Middle East Wars of 1956, 1967 and even 1973, but the country still conforms to a cherished American stereotype, of the plucky little underdog fighting off the bad guys all around.

Onto this, superimpose September 11 and the war on terror. From the moment of his address to Congress on September 21, Mr. Bush made clear that terrorism was indivisible and indefensible under any circumstances. If you were against terrorism, you were with the United States. If you tolerated or sponsored terrorism, you were against. That remains his conviction.

Europeans can argue that there is a fundamental distinction between Palestinian terrorism and the Islamic terrorism that struck America. But it is a complicated business explaining why, if the world acknowledges America's right to go into Afghanistan to strike the Taliban and al Qaeda, Israel does not have a similar right to enter the camps to root out the suicide bombers who kill scores of its citizens every month.

Americans are not in the mood to listen, and Mr. Bush knows it. In the current crisis, even the Christian Right, never notably pro-Jewish in the past but a vital political constituency of the President, is a passionate supporter of Israel.

It is upon these political realities, and upon the Bush doctrine of the indivisibility of terrorism that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has so skillfully played, in his calculated defiance of Mr. Bush's urging of an immediate withdrawal from the West Bank. If any outside party is dictating American foreign policy, it is not the Israeli lobby. It is Mr. Sharon.

But Europe's leaders and opinion makers cannot understand this reasoning. At the intellectual level, although they recognize Israel's right to strike back, they are aghast at the U.S. failure to grasp that Israel's show of force will merely generate new hatred, making even more unattainable the permanent political settlement everyone yearns for. But it is at the emotional level that the United States and Europe most sharply part company.

Once upon a time, in the wars of 1967 and 1973, Europe too saw Israel as the plucky little guy, led by heroes like Moshe Dayan and Golda Meir. Europe too did not press UN resolution 242 of 1967, which demands withdrawal from the West Bank and Gaza. So what changed? Two things, I would contend: Israel's acquisition of nuclear weapons, and its invasion of Lebanon in 1982.

The first guaranteed Israel's previously precarious existence, while the second cast Israel as a colonial power, prepared to occupy and terrorize other countries to have its way. The Lebanese adventure helps explain the particular European dislike of Ariel Sharon, for his alleged complicity in the massacre of Palestinian refugees at Shabra and Chatila. When Mr. Bush describes Sharon as "a man of peace," they wonder if he has ever read a Middle East history book in his life.

In Europe's chancelleries, moreover, what counts is less Holocaust guilt than the guilt of colonialism - including the colonialism in the Middle East that contributed to today's sorry mess. It is not just a question of nodding in the direction of the large Arab and Muslim immigrant communities in many European countries. It is also the belief that Israel has mutated from acknowledged underdog into a mighty military power, capable of annihilating the surrounding Arab states. With its current behavior, Israel reminds Europe of itself.

By extension, the United States is no longer perceived as a needed protector of Israel, but as provider of financial and military aid for an aggressor power. And this leads to the third ingredient in this witches' brew of mutual incomprehension: the gradual merging of European criticism of Israel into the growing mood of anti-Americanism among the continent's elites.

Even before September 11, resentment of America's cultural, military and economic might was growing. The United States was, in the word coined by Hubert Védrine, the former French Foreign Minister, the unchecked "hyperpower." September 11 initially created in Europe a wave of sympathy for America. But that too faded, amid protest at the treatment of the prisoners at Guantanamo Bay and the Bush Administration's impatience to go after Saddam Hussein in what Europe sees as a gratuitous and unthought-through aggression that will turn the Islamic world more fiercely against the West.

America's unquestioning support of Israel seems cut from the same cloth. The same collection of anti-Iraq hawks have become Israel's most vociferous champions, ready to let the Jewish state do whatever it takes to crush its Palestinian foes, heedless of the consequences in the Arab and Islamic world with whom the United States piously declares it wishes to improve relations.

The best hope, however, lies in an irony - that for all their arguing over the means, when it comes to ends, Europe and the United States are at one. Pace Mr. Krauthammer, Europe does not dispute the right of Israel to exist within secure borders. For his part, Mr. Bush has been more explicit than any of his predecessors about the creation of an independent Palestinian state, which 68 percent of Americans also now support, according to the latest polls.

Europeans and Americans also agree that the future final settlement will closely resemble the formula associated with the Camp David and Taba talks in the closing months of the Clinton Administration. Whether it was ever formally tabled by the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak is another matter. But the consensus over ends only reinforces the obvious: that Europe and the United States must act together if this crisis of despair is ever to be resolved.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number II in the Spring of 2002.

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