How Israel Lost Europe
How Benjamin Netanyahu lost friends and Mahmoud Abbas influenced people.
BERLIN — There was never much doubt that the U.N. General Assembly would overwhelmingly vote to upgrade the Palestinian Authority to the status of nonmember state on Nov. 29. The big surprise of the event was that a number of key Western European countries did not join the United States and vote against the resolution. The Czech Republic was the only European country to vote against the upgrade, and shockingly, the normally staunchly pro-Israeli governments of Germany and Britain decided to abstain. Does this mean that Israel has lost Europe?
Germany’s surprising decision, in the eleventh hour, to shift from opposing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s bid to abstaining on it was reportedly tied to the question of Israel’s ongoing construction of settlements in the West Bank — a recent source of contention in European capitals. Germany appears to have taken this opportunity to address the conflict on the world stage.
This decision was especially shocking to Israelis given Germany’s historical relationship with the Jewish state. Chancellor Angela Merkel declared in a 2008 speech before the Knesset that she supported Israel’s right to defend itself and that only the Israelis and Palestinians — without external interference — could negotiate a two-state solution.
"Every German chancellor before me has shouldered Germany’s special historical responsibility for Israel’s security," Merkel said then. "This historical responsibility is part of my country’s raison d’être. For me as German chancellor, therefore, Israel’s security will never be open to negotiation."
The Federal Republic has based a large chunk of its devotion to Israel’s security on the notion of Wiedergutmachung, or reparations for the German crimes against European Jewry during the Holocaust.
Although Germany likes to present itself as Israel’s strongest ally in Europe, the relationship has often been shaky. Take the example of Christoph Heusgen, Merkel’s national security advisor and Middle East point man, who in 2009 — a year after the chancellor’s speech before the Knesset — sought to convince U.S. envoys to weaken Washington’s opposition to the United Nations’ Goldstone Report, which alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza during that year’s Operation Cast Lead.
According to a WikiLeaked cable from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin at the time, Heusgen "thought [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu needed ‘to do more’ in order [to] bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table. With Palestinians in East Jerusalem getting notices from Israeli authorities that their houses will be destroyed, it would be ‘suicide’ for President Abbas to move under the current circumstances."
The cable continued: "Heusgen said he could not fathom why Netanyahu did not understand this. He suggested pressuring Netanyahu by linking favorable UNSC [U.N. Security Council] treatment of the Goldstone Report to Israel committing to a complete stop in settlement activity."
In 2010, Merkel and Netanyahu had a heated telephone exchange over the settlements issue, and the relationship further frayed over Germany’s decision this year to upgrade the Palestinian Authority’s representation in Berlin to that of a full diplomatic mission with an ambassador.
Germany’s U.N. abstention on Nov. 29 may also have been driven by domestic calculations. Specifically, Merkel may inherit the Social Democratic Party (SPD) as a coalition partner in a new government in elections in late 2013. This month, SPD officials hosted representatives of Palestine’s ruling Fatah party at the SPD’s Berlin headquarters and published a joint declaration affirming a "strategic partnership" between the two parties.
Meanwhile, France’s relations with Israel have been uneasy for more than a decade. Famously, in 2001, France’s ambassador to Britain, Daniel Bernard, called Israel "that shitty little country." More recently, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy offended the Israelis with his famous hot-mic fiasco at the 2011 G-20 meeting, in which he told U.S. President Barack Obama he couldn’t stand Netanyahu (and Obama concurred).
During Sarkozy’s tenure, France was also a vocal proponent of upgrading the Palestinian status at UNESCO. When the Paris-based UNESCO granted the Palestinians member-state status, U.S. law compelled the Obama administration to withhold its $80 million annual contribution to the organization. Washington registered its displeasure with the move in no uncertain terms. As State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland stated, the vote was "regrettable, premature, and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace in the Middle East."
Sarkozy’s successor, François Hollande, did not let the financial blow to this Paris-based organization get in the way of his support for the Palestinians at the United Nations. Hollande has made clear that the settlement issue is a priority for his government. "It erodes the building of trust between the sides and constitutes an obstacle to a just peace, based on a two-state solution," said France’s Foreign Ministry in a statement this month.
In a late-October meeting with Netanyahu in Paris, Hollande said that the two countries had "divergences on occupation, which we want to see halted."
Although Hollande has played his cards close to the vest, he announced this week that he would support Abbas’s bid. His position against the Jewish state was particularly startling given the recent uptick in anti-Semitic violence that has rocked France in recent years, forcing Paris and Jerusalem to jointly deal with this disturbing trend.
With France pushing for Palestinian statehood and Germany largely sitting out the fight, other European governments soon cast their votes in favor of Abbas’s bid too.
According to one European diplomat well versed in Spain’s foreign policy, Hollande capitalized on the weak Spanish economy to push Madrid to vote for the PLO’s upgrade. "France knows our weakness — the bank crisis — and expanded it to foreign policy," he said. In short, the diplomat noted that Spain had joined France as part of a bloc of countries — including Italy and Portugal — in exchange for France’s protection in upcoming rounds of austerity talks.
The diplomat also noted that Spain is attempting to obtain a seat on the U.N. Security Council and that the vote may have been a way to court favor from Arab countries.
Israel could once count on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s staunch support, but this has given way to successor Mario Monti’s cold shoulder. Monti’s support for the Palestinian bid was an about-face from Italy’s position when Abbas attempted a similar maneuver one year ago.
(As for the now-isolated Czechs, Prague’s decision to veto the PLO’s move came as no surprise. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has dubbed noble-born Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg the "Zionist prince" for his support during Operation Cast Lead.)
Israel’s brief war against Hamas in Gaza this month may also have had an impact on EU decision-makers. Faced with the PLO’s deepening irrelevance and the growing potency of Hamas and its Iranian military arsenal on Israel’s southern border, Israeli officials say that the Europeans may have wanted to give the nonviolent Abbas a moment in the sun. In other words, they wished to demonstrate approval for bureaucratic and legal strategies over the brutal violence of Abbas’s rivals in Gaza.
So, after the better part of a decade of diplomacy between PLO embassies and their host governments from Latin America to the Levant, Abbas won his diplomatic upgrade.
Israel, for its part, made no diplomatic overtures to counter Abbas’s whirlwind tour of European capitals over the last two years, which included multiple visits to multiple capitals, including Berlin. The Israelis produced no tangible alternative to persuade European leaders from voting for the upgrade. Abbas badly outflanked Netanyahu, while Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who remains widely reviled among Europeans, did not exercise the diplomatic finesse necessary to keep Israel’s continental allies at his side.
In fairness, Israel always faced an uphill battle in Europe, where Muslim populations are on the rise and pro-Palestinian sentiments continue to gain traction. From the EU’s perspective, Israel’s long-standing recalcitrance over settlements and the rise of Hamas probably made support for Abbas inevitable.
But for Netanyahu to find himself all alone, with only a reluctant partner in Washington and seven other countries by his side, must surely have come as a shock.