Within three days of Israel’s attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla, the pro-Israel lobby in Brussels was already seeking to deflect attention from the killing of nine peace activists in international waters.
The European Friends of Israel, a grouping of parliamentarians, issued a statement Jun. 3, which made no reference to the assault earlier in the week. Instead it highlighted the findings of a survey published by the Institute for Management Development in Switzerland, which named Israel as the economy most resilient to variations in the global economy and as a top spender on scientific research and innovation.
These findings might help explain why the collective response of the European Union’s 27 member states to the attacks has been weak. For despite growing revulsion at Israel’s occupation of Palestine among ordinary people throughout the world, the EU has been so impressed with the robust performance of the Israeli economy that it has integrated it into many of its activities in recent years.
While some individual EU governments made plain their displeasure with the attacks by summoning Israeli ambassadors to urgent meetings, the Union’s foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton merely described the attacks as a “tragedy”, a term usually reserved for accidents. Initially she called on Israel to conduct its own investigations. When she released a subsequent statement – during a visit to Russia – urging a “full and impartial enquiry of the events and circumstances”, she did not specify if this should be undertaken by Israel or by a United Nations-appointed team.
Over the past decade Israel has been integrated into several EU programmes, ranging from satellite navigation to business promotion. Many of these programmes are administered by the European Commission, the EU’s executive. Yet José Manuel Barroso, the Commission’s president, would not comment when asked if he would be seeking a review of Israeli participation in the EU’s activities. “I fully agree with the position taken by the EU High Representative Cathy Ashton,” he told me, declining to elaborate.
Barroso is one of several top-level politicians in Brussels to have cultivated strong ties with the pro-Israel lobby. Last year, he was guest of honour at the opening of a new EU affairs office for the European Jewish Congress (EJC), where he praised the organisation for “being fully committed to the resumption of the peace process” in the Middle East.
The EJC has subsequently mounted an intense campaign designed to convince the European Parliament not to approve motions critical of Israel’s conduct in the occupied Palestinian territories. The EJC responded to the massacre perpetrated by Israeli troops on board the Turkish-owned vessel the Mavi Marvara by calling on the EU to officially declare one of the key groups in the Free Gaza campaign as a terrorist organisation. Moshe Kantor, the EJC’s president, accused the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (known by the acronym IHH) of having links to al Qaeda. The Israeli government has made similar claims recently but they have been fiercely contested by international peace activists and supporters of the Palestinian solidarity movement, who insist the allegation is baseless.
Scientific research has been among the largest areas of cooperation between the EU and Israel. The EU has become a major provider of research grants to Israeli firms and research institutes over the past decade, thanks to Israel’s status as the main foreign partner for the EU’s multi-annual research programme, which has been allocated 53 billion euros (64 billion dollars) for the 2007-13 period. Companies such as Motorola Israel, Elbit and Israel Aerospace Industries are taking part in the programme’s activities.
Although these companies have manufactured weapons and components used in attacks on Palestinian civilians, Israel’s war against Lebanon in 2006 and by the US-led alliance in Afghanistan, Janez Potocnik, the EU’s research commissioner between 2004 and 2009, expressed no regrets about the firms’ involvement in a programme financed by the European taxpayer. “What we have tried to provide is something that is of benefit of European partners,” he told me. “We are talking about research itself and nothing more than research.”
The EU, meanwhile, would not support a motion brought before the United Nations Human Rights Council Jun. 3 condemning Israel’s attacks. Most European states on the council abstained from the vote, with Italy and the Netherlands siding with the US in voting against the resolution, which was carried by 32 votes to 3. The resolution demanded that Israel lift the blockade of Gaza and that it immediately allow food, medicine and other essential supplies to be delivered there.
Maysa Zorob, Brussels representative with the Palestinian human rights group Al Haq, said she was a “bit sick” of how the EU has been willing to call for Israel to conduct its own investigations into human rights abuses by its armed forces. “This whole ‘let’s ask for investigations’ approach is getting us nowhere,” she added. “Nothing concrete is being done by the EU or anyone else.”
• First published by Inter Press Service (www.ipsnews.net)