Relations between Europe and Israel appeared to be heading into a tailspin this week, with European papers reacting to a succession of Israeli broadsides against the European Union and France in particular.
The diplomatic fracas began Sunday, when Israeli prime minister Ariel Sharon—apparently ad-libbing during a speech to American Jewish leaders in Jerusalem—delivered the following message to Jews in France: "Move to Israel, as early as possible. I say that to Jews all around the world, but there (in France) I think it's a must and they have to move immediately." The Israeli government often encourages Diaspora Jews to come to Israel, but Sharon's remarks about France were particularly stinging as he said French Jews should emigrate to escape "the wildest anti-Semitism."
Paris dailies reacted to Sharon's remarks with indignation and bewilderment. "What is Ariel Sharon trying to obtain?" asked Le Monde. While noting a troubling increase in anti-Semitic attacks in France, the daily suggested an ulterior motive: Sharon's remarks had little to do with the plight of French Jews, but were instead a veiled message that France—and Europe in general—is "stained by its pro-Arab position" and should therefore stay out of Middle Eastern affairs. The regional daily La Presse de la Manche brought out Jacques Chirac's old chestnut, saying Sharon "missed a great opportunity to keep his mouth shut." The French president used almost identical language last year when he scolded eastern European governments for siding with the United States in its standoff with Saddam Hussein. (French translations courtesy of BBC Monitoring and the Guardian.)
Papers elsewhere in Europe sounded similar notes. Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung could not resist making the obvious point: Despite a rise in anti-Semitic attacks in France, Israel is not exactly a safe haven for Jews by comparison. Indeed, Jews in Paris, Marseille, and Lyon are still safer than they would be in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, the paper wrote. Wetzlarer Neue Zeitung said Sharon's remarks were designed to minimize the influence of Western Europe, with its large Muslim population, in what remains of the peace process. "This was a broadside fired at France's four million Muslims," the paper wrote. Other estimates put France's Muslim population at over 5 million, or about 8 percent of the population. France is also home to 600,000 Jews, the largest Jewish population in Western Europe. (German translations courtesy of Deutsche Welle radio.)
French President Jacques Chirac issued a quick retort, reportedly telling Sharon he was no longer welcome in France after his remarks. (Although France had issued an invitation to Sharon to visit Paris, no specific plans were actually in place.) By Tuesday, both sides were making conciliatory noises: An Israeli government spokesman said the affair was "a misunderstanding between Israel and France which is caused by cultural differences" and Jerusalem offered "clarifications" of Sharon's remarks.
But the gloves were off again by Wednesday. Following a 150-6 * vote in the United Nations' General Assembly condemning the West Bank security barrier and demanding that Israel dismantle those parts of it on Palestinian land, Israel lashed out at Europe as a whole, and France again in particular. In a rare moment of unity, European nations had unanimously supported the resolution; even Germany, which rarely supports U.N. resolutions criticizing Israel, voted with the majority. The Israeli Foreign Ministry released a scathing statement: "The willingness of the EU to fall in with the Palestinian position, together with its desire to reach a European consensus at the price of descending to the lowest common denominator, raises doubts as to the ability of the EU to contribute anything constructive to the diplomatic process."
Jerusalem pinned the blame on Paris: "France behaved especially disgracefully by working on behalf of its Palestinian friends to convince other European states to accept the resolution," Israel's ambassador to the United Nations told Israeli radio. Jerusalem says it has no intention of stopping construction of the wall.
The Guardian pointed out that while Ariel Sharon sees no further role for Europeans in peace negotiations, Israeli officials are in fact secretly glad the U.N. resolution stopped short of calling for sanctions, if only because Europe is Israel's largest trading partner.
London's Daily Telegraph chided Tony Blair's government for siding with Europe rather than Israel. "The barrier is undoubtedly proving effective in protecting the population, the prime duty of any government," the paper wrote, pointing out that despite the "rivers of blood" promised by Palestinian militants following Israel's dual assassinations of Hamas leaders, terrorist attacks inside Israel proper have actually dropped by more than 80 percent. The Telegraph said Britain should have voted against the U.N. resolution along with the United States, Israel, Australia, the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, and Palau—or, at the very least, abstained like Canada.
Correction, July 23, 2004: This article originally stated that the U.N. General Assembly vote condemning Israel's West Bank security barrier was 105-6; in fact, the vote was 150-6. (Return to corrected sentence.)