Tue, Nov 11, 2003 - Page 9 News List

Why do Europeans think they are threatened by Israel?

By Martin Woollacott  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

Ever since its foundation, Israel has been troubled by the thought that it might have as much to fear from supposed friends as from avowed enemies. That is one reason why Israelis are often anxious monitors of public opinion in North America and Europe. Their anxiety, and perhaps their anger, showed a peak last week when the EU's polling organization released figures showing that Europeans reckoned Israel was a greater threat to world peace than any other country. The results reinforced the Israeli sense that the distance between them and the Europeans continues to grow and that the US is their only reliable partner.

Most of the protests about the poll were disingenuous, since they were couched in terms suggesting that a sampling of public opinion somehow represents an act of European policy. But the poll itself was certainly suspect. The question 7,500 Europeans answered was too general. In particular, it left open whether the countries on the list were threats through grave fault of their own or, if they were, whether they shared that fault with another state or society with which they were in conflict. An EU spokesman this week confirmed that the poll unit had no plans to ask that particular question again in the near future.

Flawed as the question was, and misdirected as some of the protests were, the poll results, nevertheless, do suggest -- along with other evidence -- that there has been a critical change in European perceptions of Israel. Europeans have, of course, always seen the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians as a moral issue.

They have also been conscious of it as springing, in part, from European acts in the past and, therefore, as being in some way a European responsibility. And they long ago grasped that it is a problem that affects European interests, whether those be good relations with Muslim governments, the loyalty of Europe's own Muslim minorities, or the availability of oil at acceptable prices.

What is new since Sept. 11 is that Europeans sense a threat to their existence, and not just to their interests. In the past, there were times at which it seemed possible that a nuclear exchange between the two cold-war blocs might be ignited by Middle Eastern events. But apart from those one or two bad moments when the cold war could have become hot, Europeans felt that, although their lives could be damaged as a result of what happened between Israelis and Palestinians, they could not be devastated.

Now, because there could be terrorist acts on a new scale, they sense that devastation is indeed a possibility. Shlomo Ben-Ami, a former Israeli minister and peace negotiator, sees that "Europeans fear a backlash from what happens between us and the Palestinians," though he cautions against a view of the crisis that ignores its roots and the responsibility of the other party.

European fears may be overdone. There is also the complicated question of whether it is a correct reading of the terror threat to calculate that it would be either greatly or swiftly diminished by a settlement between Israelis and Palestinians. But, viscerally, Europeans believe they would be much safer if there were such a settlement, and a majority probably believe that Israel is much more to blame for the lack of it than the Palestinians. Since European opinion was already running against Israel on other grounds, a coincidence of moral critique and self defence emerges.

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