Israel Talking

Amb. Aviv Shir-On discusses Europe and Middle East peace

News | Justin McCauley | March 2010

Considering recent events such as Operation Cast Lead – Israel’s controversial 2008-2009 military adventure into Gaza – as well as the current storm regarding the assassination of a top Hamas leader in Dubai, there have been considerable strains on Europe’s relations with the State of Israel. What does Israel’s Ambassador to Austria think about the status of Israeli-European relations? "In one word: good. In two words: not good." The amiable, loquacious and animated Ambassador Aviv Shir-On, as he talked at length with The Vienna Review on Feb. 26 about the condition of the Jewish state’s affiliation with the European continent, exposing many of the complexities that adorn the ongoing and often rocky alliance.

Shir-On stressed that the relationship has its ups and downs and can become heated, but its foundations remain strong. "Traditional, liberal European ideas are part of Israeli society," he said, commenting that Israel was in many ways closer with Europe than with its neighbors in the region. Indeed, Britain, Germany, Italy and France have all maintained consistently strong ties to Israel since the state’s founding in 1948, spanning political, economic and military cooperation. Europe remains Israel’s biggest trade partner, and as Shir-On pointed out, Israeli officials are often included in the various meetings and summits of European governments, especially at the EU level.

However some countries have shown considerable enmity towards Israel, such as Sweden, whose politicians many feel have gone beyond policy critiques and are to the point of actively fostering anti-Israel sentiment. Swedish politicians regularly refer to "Israeli apartheid," and there was massive quarreling in 2009 after the Swedish daily Aftonbladet published an article accusing Israel of harvesting the organs of Palestinian dead during the Gaza War. Moreover, there has been severe backlash against Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians within European societies. Massive protests, boycotts and academic condemnation have been unleashed against Israel, who many Europeans believe engaged in wanton destruction and war crimes during both the 2006 Second Lebanon War and the 2009 Gaza War. The desolate conditions in which the Palestinians continue to live further fuel the anger.

"It is only human that sympathy goes to those who are weak and impoverished," asserted Shir-On, pointing out that from 1948 until the 1967 Six Day War, Israelis were the underdogs, and the world passionately threw their support behind them. However Shir-On maintained that if Israel was "right" then, it is still right now, the only difference being that the Israelis are not poor or impoverished anymore.

However, according to various polls conducted over the last several years, many Europeans view Israel as the biggest threat to world peace. To this Shir-On declared, "one fact is clear – many people are not well-informed." He cited the complexity of the situation as a problem; the Arab-Israeli conflict is so convoluted and multifarious that it is impossible to adequately explain it in sixty-second sound bites on the evening news. What is presented is a simple, populist version of a multifaceted problem, which depicts the situation as little more than a Palestinian David against an Israeli Goliath. To put it simply: Israel has a PR problem.

"We have made our mistakes throughout the years," Shir-On said, but maintained that generally speaking the Israeli cause has been just. He stressed that Israel is not, nor has it ever been, the imperial power that many of its enemies have accused it of being, pointing out that Israel has given back more land than its kept – including the Sinai Peninsula, twice Israel’s size – in exchange for peace and security. These facets of the conflict go overlooked in the mainstream media, Shir-On asserted, as does the fact that, for instance, in the last three days, militants in Gaza have fired ten rockets into the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon. This, he said, goes unnoticed. It is as if, because the aggression is rather impotent, that the intent itself is not worth condemning. Ultimately, Shir-On avowed, considering Israel was born into a state of conflict, having fought and won several wars that they did not start, the idea that Israel is the biggest threat to world peace is "absurd."

Predictably, small pockets of anti-Semitism have emerged (or re-emerged) in Europe. Sometimes an impetus and sometimes a result of anti-Israel sentiment, it is nonetheless present and continues to be incredibly controversial for European countries. On this topic the ambassador wanted to be clear: "Some Israelis and Jews tend to dismiss any and all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism, and that isn’t right. Everyone has the right to be criticized, as Israel does if there are those who view their actions as wrong." He did acknowledge that there do exist "little pockets" of anti-Semitism in Europe, and that "they are, at the same time, using [disagreements with Israel] not because they have specific policy critiques, but simply because they’re anti-Semitic." He went on to say that it is every society and government’s duty, including Israel’s, to make the distinction between legitimate critics and anti-Semites. Additionally, he pointed out that there has been a miscommunication about what Zionism actually is, which is nothing more than "the right of the Jewish people to self-determination, and to build a homeland." To deny the Jews self-determination while simultaneously championing Palestinian self-determination is to employ hypocrisy.

Regarding the boycotting of Israel, the ambassador stated that, "it’s not a good way to go if you want to change people’s minds on something." He called the boycotting of Israeli academics and academic institutions quite paradoxical, in addition to being counter-productive. The Israeli academic establishment is by far the most sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, and the most critical faction of Israeli society towards government policies. For instance, many young, gifted Israelis have been turned down by doctoral advisors in Europe simply because they had completed their mandatory service in the Israel Defense Forces. To blacklist the most liberal, open-minded and pro-Palestinian rights of all Israelis it dim-witted, and shows that, contrary to having genuine policy disputes, many European are simply "against Israel. Period."

Shir-On offered an interesting perspective on the issue of borders, vis-à-vis Europe. "The borders of Europe were determined in two big wars, in which the defeated party paid a price and the victors dictated the terms," he said, "however, in the Middle East some Europeans want to apply the opposite." He went on to vent that no one in the region wanted to allow Jewish rights during Israel’s formative years, and that after sixty-two years of war, terror and suffering on all sides, the basic concept has remained the same: a two state solution, something Israel accepted in 1948, but which the Palestinians rejected and continued to reject until Oslo. Shir-On acknowledged that the Palestinians have become the ultimate victims of the situation, but that a considerable part of the problem has been a lack of Palestinian compromise and outright denial of Israel’s right to exist. In particular, the outcome of the 2000 Camp David summit Shir-On sited as a prime example, in which then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak gave Yasser Arafat Israel’s best offer, which Arafat turned down. This, the ambassador avowed, was the result of Barak asking Arafat to sign a document stating that Camp David would be a final resolution and a permanent end to hostilities, which Arafat refused. He likened the whole situation to two children who murder their parents, only to ask for the mercy of the court because they are now orphans.

Aside from the Palestinian problem, there have been divergent views on how to deal with Iran’s rhetoric and its fledging nuclear program, although the disparity is shrinking. When asked if the Europeans comprehend the danger of a nuclear Iran to Israel Shir-On said, "they are trying. But what is more important to comprehend is the danger to themselves." He highlighted that Iran is obtaining missiles that have ranges of three-to-five thousand kilometers, which are capable of reaching Europe. A much smaller range is required to attack Israel, so why, Shir-On asks, do they need such a long range capability? "Threats are judged based on two criteria: intentions and capabilities. The intention to destroy Israel is there, Ahmadinejad reiterated this just a couple of days ago in Damascus. If they acquire nuclear capabilities, this is an existential threat for us."

This raises a more general question of Israel’s security situation. Because of Israel’s military prowess and seemingly effortless defeats of multiple enemies, many Europeans view the Israelis as invincible, and therefore in no position to cry wolf about security. However there is a duality here that needs to be addressed. "Too many people in Europe see us, because of our military power, as a regional superpower, but Israel is a small country," Shir-On said, "and the decision of making peace involves territorial compromise. With Hamas this is a problem." He expounded, saying the narrowest point between the West Bank and the Israeli coastline was a mere fourteen kilometers – which would mean a hostile state in the West Bank would be able to cripple Israel’s cities. "One man with a rifle," he asserted, could make the operation of Ben-Gurion International Airport, outside of Tel Aviv, an impossibility. "If we lived next to Switzerland, it would be no problem…but not everyone can live next to Switzerland," he remarked with a smile.

He stressed the importance of any final status agreement involving a peaceful Palestinian leadership without violent ambitions towards Israel. Hamas obviously falls short of this requirement; Europeans, for their part, often fail to see why this is such a vital demand for Israel. It is so for one reason: Israel cannot lose even one war, and survive. Unlike larger countries with strategic depth and considerable manpower, Israel is geographically minute and therefore completely at the mercy of anyone who defeats them. Considering regional sentiment towards Israel, and the stated intent of Hamas, Hezbollah and Iran, the result would be predictable. Shir-On puts it flatly, "If Israel looses a war, it ceases to exist."

On a lighter note, Israeli-EU economic relations remain as strong as ever, hinting at a slight disparity between Europe’s political posturing and their dedication to economic common sense. Shir-On viewed European economic policies in the Middle East as a delicate balancing act: "The Arab countries have the oil, so Europe has a legitimate interest in maintaining good economic relations with them," he offered. Israel, on the other hand, has an economy that is bigger than all its bordering countries’ combined. Further, Israeli industry is on the cutting edge of many technological advances, with products such as the USB stick being developed by Israeli scientists. And of course, Israeli European trade relations are thriving, with Germany alone being one of Israel’s most important trading partners, second only to the United States.

On a more apolitical level, what role does society and culture play in the Israeli-European connection? When asked if he feels there are still strong cultural ties between Israel and Europe, Shi-On answered, "definitely." European art, music and films are widely popular in Israel, and the ambassador happily declared, "we are very much part of Europe where football is concerned."

However, Israel has for some time now straddled the cultural fence. Like many young nations such as the United States, Israel is a so-called "melting pot" – one where various forms of Jewish tradition converge with numerous European cultures, as well as those of the Levant, the Maghreb and Persia. The father of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, was a liberal Austrian journalist and editor of Die Neue Presse, the predecessor of today’s Die Presse. The Jews that created Israel were not religiously devout, but secular European socialists. Upon this base arrived hundreds of thousands – working class Yiddish families from Poland; Arab Jews exiled from Iraq and Yemen; Persian, Ethiopians, Moroccans...all of these cultures meet in Israel. While there is a rather rigid social hierarchy between Ashkenazim (Jews from Northern and Eastern Europe), Sephardim (from the Iberian Peninsula) and Mizrahim (from Arab, Persian and Central Asian countries), all of these cultures add to the cultural Petri dish that Israel has become.

"We are Middle Easterners," Shir-On declares, illustrating that Israel’s identity lies as much in the Levant as in the European continent. While the influential Ashkenazi establishment retains considerable European elements, Israel is saturated with Middle Eastern culture and traditions.

Ultimately, Shir-On confesses, "The Middle East is a difficult region to survive in." He admits that Israel has not been a saint; but his biggest qualm with Europe remains with their perceived double standard regarding Israel and its neighbors. Shir-On pointed out that while Israel – a liberal democracy – has been condemned and boycotted because of the Palestinian occupation, oppressive, autocratic states such as Saudi Arabia and Iran – where honor killings, stoning, and public executions are commonplace – receive only marginal criticism relative to Israel’s, particularly in European societies. The ambassador expressed his feeling that it is the emotive elements of the conflict, in addition to a superficial understanding of the situation and its history, which fosters such disproportionate vilification of the Jewish state.

How can Europe assist in the peace process? "Europe can use its political relations with both parties," Shir-On suggested, "France, Britain, they have a traditional presence in the region." He went on, saying that economic capabilities can support political ones, and that continued European civilian projects aimed at building infrastructure in underdeveloped regions of the Middle East are essential. Shir-On’s main thesis can be summed up in a word: even-handedness. His greatest frustration comes from the simplification most people make, i.e. that the Palestinians are the "good guys" and the Israelis are the "bad guys." To simplify perhaps the most complex, protracted geopolitical conflict in modern history to such an elementary notion is to engage in fabrication – it will also fail to contribute to resolving the ongoing crisis. Israeli historian Avi Shlaim recently wrote in The Guardian, the venerated British daily, "the fundamental issue in this tragic conflict is not Israeli security but Palestinian national rights." Until people acknowledge that the fundamental issue is both Israeli security and Palestinian national rights, neither side is likely to make concessions in good faith.

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