European Leaders don't view Israel as a threat

If you behave nicely, we will let you have a greater peacemaking role. Roughly speaking, that is the message that the Sharon government has sent to the European Union since the start of its current term. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom took a big step when he began a friendship campaign in Europe promising it "quality relations" - a new era in which the statement "Israel can manage without Europe, while Europe can ignore Israel" will no longer exist. But today, about eight months after those same promises of a new political springtime, the heads of the EU feel frustrated, not to say deceived, and their sobering is accompanied by nervous signals.

The Europeans feel that for their part, they supplied the merchandise in full: They signed previously delayed R&D and agricultural agreements with Israel, passed a proposal to upgrade relations in the framework of "Wider Europe," agreed to develop the strategic dialogue, placed the political wing of Hamas on the list of terrorist organizations, and took what Israel considers more "balanced" positions both at EU summits and at the UN.

However, at the same time, Europe's position has not changed when it comes to its remaining outside the mired political process. All it can do is eat its heart out as it watches how the separation fence is being built along a controversial route, how settlement expansion continues while Palestinian citizens are being hurt in aerial attacks, and perhaps, worst of all, how the central channel by which the EU was able to express its growing frustration with the situation has been neutralized: Since meeting with Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat in early October, the new EU Special Representative (EUSR) for the Middle East Peace Process, Marc Otte of Belgium, has been boycotted by Israeli decision-makers.

Even before his meeting with Arafat, the only officials to have met Otte here were the director-general of the Foreign Ministry, Yoav Biran, and the chief of staff of the Prime Minister's Office, Dov Weisglass. Since then, Otte cannot even see them any longer except "through binoculars," as a Foreign Ministry source put it. From this interview with Haaretz - the first comprehensive interview he has given since taking the post in July - one gets the impression that in light of "Israel's unacceptable policy," as Otte puts it, his fuse is growing shorter: "The EU can no longer refrain from responding to Israel's [boycott] policy. After all, it is opposed to the stated goals of Foreign Minister [Silvan] Shalom and even of Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon, and is causing profound anger in European capitals. Countries whose interests aren't taken into account tend to take steps in order to influence the countries that work against them. Don't expect countries with a serious foreign policy not to take steps in response to the obstacles [that are being placed in their way]."

Otte's outspoken words are consistent with a series of reports and signals that recently have been sent from Europe to Jerusalem. Israel's ambassador to France, Nissim Zvili, was called in to France's foreign ministry in Paris where he was told that if Israel continues its boycott policy, there will be consequences. The possibility of a counter-boycott, even if it was not specifically mentioned, hovered in the air.

During his visit to Germany about two weeks ago, Shalom held harsh talks with his German colleague, Joschka Fischer, and Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. Both German officials discussed Israel's damaged image in Europe and Germany's growing difficulty in defending Israel in European forums. Signs of impatience are being heard from offices of European Commission President, Romano Prodi, commissioner for external relations, Chris Patten, and high representative for common foreign and security policy, Javier Solana. According to a report in the Spanish newspaper El Pais, which is based on information from Solana's office, the EU is considering taking steps against Israel.

Israel is shooting itself in the foot

Otte admits that these steps could include a counter-boycott of Israeli delegates - for example, Israel's ambassador to the EU. "Even such a step isn't out of the question," he says. "It's hard for us to understand how Israel talks on the one hand about strategic partnership with Europe, and on the other hand ignores it." He says that in Europe, people wonder whether Israel's policy is not actually designed to neutralize the Quartet. "The three delegates who met with Arafat (representatives of the EU, Russia, and the UN, A.P.) are being boycotted by Israel. Maybe that's its way of leaving only one mediator in the region - the United States."

However, Otte believes that when Israel slights him, it is shooting itself in the foot. "My job is to convey the position of the parties to the conflict to European decision-makers," he says. "If the Israeli side doesn't cooperate with me, it makes my mission more difficult. How can I present the Israeli position on the fence, the settlements, or other controversial subjects under present conditions? We want to be balanced, and Israel is making that difficult for us."

Otte, 56, served as Belgium's ambassador to Israel from 1992 to 1996. Upon returning to Brussels in 1997, he was appointed director for security policy and disarmament in Belgium's foreign ministry. Two years later, he was appointed as Solana's adviser on defense and security policy. In Jerusalem, he is remembered as a positive, rational, professional ambassador with an open mind. The assessment is that, unlike his predecessor, Spain's Miguel Moratinos who was considered emotional and tempestuous, the introverted Otte will not make waves here. He is familiar with Israel and its leading figures, and testifies that he plans to work with full transparency with all parties. Unlike Moratinos - whose relations with Solana were characterized by ups and downs and ego games - Otte is considered very close to Solana and the top echelons in Brussels. Despite this, Israel, in the short term, does not intend to make an exception of Otte when it comes to boycotting those who visit Arafat.

The EU, for its part, is not planning to capitulate and change its policy regarding Arafat. Most European countries consider Arafat a negative factor, but they believe that for that very reason he should not be boycotted, but rather "neutralized with an embrace." The Europeans believe that this policy is what led Arafat to appoint Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) as prime minister. When Otte was asked about the fact that even Ahmed Qureia (Abu Ala), Abbas' replacement, does not want to, or cannot, sever himself from Arafat, he replies: "Is that what's important? If we are serious about establishing a democratic Palestinian state based on law, we must honor the Palestinians' choice. It isn't our job to choose their prime minister, just as it isn't our job to choose the prime minister of Israel or Jordan. We don't define our policy in relation to specific personages, but rather in relation to the behavior of the government elected by its people."

Otte does not hide his differences of opinion with the Israeli government concerning the Geneva Accords. He considers them a document that not only is positive in itself, but also is an operative initiative that can grease the wheels of the negotiations and force the official bodies to go into action. "In the present situation of lack of movement on the level of the official leadership, it's good that Israelis and Palestinians are proving that they can sit together and discuss the future of their relations," he says. "In any conflict that looks extreme and insoluble, the long-term solutions have been found as a result of private initiatives. The Oslo process began as a private initiative, and in other areas of conflict, in Northern Ireland or in Africa, people of goodwill were needed, too."

When asked whether the EU will support the Geneva Accords, Otte pulls out a diplomatic formulation that can satisfy everyone - or perhaps just the opposite. "There is no reason why we should reject an initiative that is designed to get us out of the dead end," he says, hastening to add that, "It isn't the job of official Europe to support such initiatives formally." Despite his words about the "dead end situation," he claims that this does not imply recognition of the demise of the road map. "The road map isn't being implemented by either of the parties. That's clear. The reason for that is terrorism on the Palestinian side, the continued expansion of the settlements, and the building of the fence on the Israeli side - and all this during a period that was supposed to be a confidence-building period. Despite that, we are still committed to the map, which we consider a correct formula."

Otte agrees to adopt Israel's definition of "fence" (barriere in French rather than "wall," or mur, the term used in the European media) when talking about the separation fence. He points out that despite the fact that the connection between walls and peace does not exactly conform to the lessons learned in Europe, one can understand Israel's decision to protect its citizens against terrorism by this means. The problem, in his opinion, is not the fence but its route. "If this route causes the confiscation of Palestinian lands and causes economic difficulties for them, instead of contributing to Israel's security, the fence will create new frustrations and arouse opposition. It certainly won't promote the two-state vision."

Do you accept the argument that building the fence is meant to allow for the expansion of the settlements, thus preventing the establishment of the Palestinian state?

"Everything is possible," Otte says. "After all, one can't accuse Sharon of not sticking to goals. However, if Sharon says that he intends to implement [U.S. President George W.] Bush's vision, there is no reason not to believe his sincerity. In any case, we don't judge people but the actions of governments and the keeping of promises."

A less blameworthy attack

When asked whether the attack on the Gaza Strip army base at Netzarim two weeks ago should be considered a terrorist attack, as Israel defines it, or an act of resistance by an occupied nation, as it is seen in Europe, Otte replies: "There is a difference between an attack on an army, which is seen as an occupation army, and the massacre of innocent civilians in a restaurant." He says that the Netzarim attack may be considered by some "as a less blameworthy action." Nevertheless, he adds that "even the killing of three Israeli soldiers who are guarding a settlement is not a solution."

As someone who has specialized in crisis management and peacekeeping missions, Otte believes that in the long run, the deployment of an international intervention force is realistic. "There are two possibilities - the deployment of such a force with the agreement of the two parties, or a solution imposed by the international community, as in Kosovo, for example." Regarding the latter, Otte suggests paying attention to Russia's proposal that the UN Security Council adopt the road map. "This initiative proves that the international community is impatient now, and therefore, it is possible that the Russian proposal has a future," he says. Nevertheless, while 81 percent of those polled in a European Commission survey published yesterday said that Europe should fulfill a more important role in the Middle East, Otte totally rejects exclusive EU military intervention in the region. "Military intervention in the region is possible only with the United States. That's what Israel will demand, that is apparently what the Arab countries will demand, and that is what we will demand if the question of our intervention comes up."

Otte admits that Europe's image in Israel disturbs him. He hopes to improve this image and change the way the two sides behave toward each other. The key words that he uses in this context are dialogue, persuasion and listening to one another. "My role is to mediate and to help the Europeans to understand the Israelis, to explain their fears and their hopes. On the other hand, I am obliged to explain to the Israelis the essence of the EU project, which is in essence a peace project."

The envoy hopes "to get things moving here a little," but apparently understands that bridging the profound lack of understanding between the two sides is an almost impossible mission. "I have no illusions," Otte says. "I began my job during an especially gloomy period, and in this context I am guided by the words of William the Conqueror: "Il ne fallait pas esperer pour entreprendre, ni reussir pour perseverer" - One doesn't have to be hopeful in order to try, nor does one have to succeed in order to persevere.

"These figures bother us and prove that Israel and the European Union must deepen their dialogue and cooperation," EU Middle East envoy Marc Otte told Haaretz yesterday regarding the recent poll that placed Israel at the top of the list of countries considered to be "a threat to peace in the world."

Otte used the results of the survey and subsequent Israeli reactions to express his displeasure with the country's decision-makers who are boycotting him. "This is not the time for declarations of war and unnecessary dramatization," he said. "On the contrary, the time has come for us to work together to root out the conceptions that are expressed by the survey."

Otte said he hoped that this week's admission by Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom to Haaretz of Israel's decades-old neglect of the European arena signals a greater investment by the government in European relations.

Otte outrightly rejected claims that the poll was slanted and expressed hidden anti-Israeli sentiment. "These polls on issues of interest to the European public are taken regularly by an independent organization, with no hidden agenda," he said.

The EU envoy emphasized that the survey does not reflect the opinion of European leaders. "Never in the history of Israeli-European relations have declarations been adopted that relate to Israel as a threat," he said. "Our policy is not based on such positions." (A.P.)

by Adam Primor, October 2003