Thu, Aug 24, 2006 - Page 9 News List

Israel's conflict with Hezbollah divides allies

Many Americans justify Israel's aggression as necessary to contain radical Islam, but Europeans believe the solution should be a political one

By Dominique Moisi

In trans-Atlantic relations, nothing is potentially more divisive than the issue of Israel's security. From that standpoint, in spite of a rapprochement between France and the US, culminating in a joint UN resolution, the latest Middle East war is in reality widening and deepening the emotional gap that has existed between Europe and the US since the war in Iraq began.

What is unfolding in front of us can be seen as a real-life version of Luigi Pirandello's play To Each His Own Truth. And, in all fairness, each side has its grains of truth.

For a majority of Americans, now more than ever, Israel is the first line of defense for the West against Iranian-led radical Islam, even if they disagree with the tactical choices made by Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's government. This war, unlike the previous 1982 war in Lebanon, is for Americans not a war of choice but of necessity.

For a majority of Europeans, though they have absolutely no sympathy for radical Muslims, be they Sunni or Shia, Israel's offensive against Hezbollah and its result, the destruction of Lebanon, are seen as self-defeating for Israel and as potentially detonating a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West. For, ultimately, a resolution of the conflict between Israel and its neighbors can be only political.

The "falling out of love" between Europe and Israel, so visible in most European reporting about the war, is part of a process rather than the result of a single event. Until the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel's image benefited from living memories of the Shoah and the silent guilt of an entire generation of Europeans. The transformation of Israel's image in Europe since then is above all a product of time and size, magnified by the power of images in our global age.

With the passing of time and the transformation of Israel from a small pioneer state to a regional superpower, Israel's image became blurred and progressively negative, while sympathy for the Palestinian cause spread, despite Palestinian terrorism. Israel's settlement policies, opposition to the ever closer alliance between Israel and the US, and integration of the sensitivities of a growing Muslim population all contribute to explaining the evolution of Europe's disenchantment with Israel.

Paradoxically, given the initial Christian origins of anti-Semitism in Europe, the process of "dechristianization" on the Continent has played against Israel. At a time of reconciliation between Christianity and Judaism, a less Christian Europe has been more reluctant to consider the spiritual specificity of Israel. This stands in total contrast with the growing strength of the US' Christian revival, with the evangelical right combining support for the Greater Israel of the Bible with a rather classical form of Anti-Semitism. After all, Jews are destined to be converted to Christianity before the end time.

Europeans, with some nuances, are now emotionally united in their "coolness" toward Israel. Germany is no longer an exception when it comes to public opinion, and European governments are united in their reluctance to send troops on the ground to separate Israel and Hezbollah.

Nonetheless, political divisions within Europe are reminiscent of those that prevailed at the time of the Iraq war. Of course, Germany under Chancellor Angela Merkel has adopted a somewhat different stance, owing to the Christian Democratic Party's special relationship with Israel. By contrast, Spain and Italy are more critical and have moved closer to France. Indeed, in the context of the latest Middle East war, there is "more" France and "less" Europe, at least on the visible diplomatic front.

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