European Politics on Palestine

David Cronin1 is one of the leading public critics of European policies on Palestine. He has written for a variety of publications across Europe, has served as European correspondent for the Sunday Tribune (Dublin) and as Brussels correspondent for the Inter Press Service news agency, and is the author of Europe’s Alliance with Israel: Aiding the Occupation (Pluto Press, 2011). His book is described by Ken Loach as “essential reading for all who care about justice and the rule of law.”

Dan Freeman-Maloy: In your book, you describe the determination of Israeli planners to develop closer ties with the European Union. Has Israel’s traditional policy of trying to limit European diplomatic involvement in the Middle East changed?

David Cronin: Yes and no.

In recent years, there has been quite a bit of strategic thinking undertaken by the Israeli foreign ministry. This was particularly the case when Tzipi Livni was in charge of that ministry.

One of the conclusions of that thinking was that Israel should not rely entirely on the US to defend its indefensible actions. There was a realisation that while the US remains the only superpower at the moment, other powers are emerging. The decision to “reach out” more to the EU was taken in that context. Israel is similarly seeking to engage more with China, India and Brazil, particularly with regard to sales of weaponry and surveillance technology.

There is a perception in some circles that European diplomats are hostile to Israel. In the first few months of this year, a series of leaked reports from EU representatives in East Jerusalem and Ramallah expressed frustration with the expansion of Israeli settlements. Yet it’s significant that these reports were drawn up by people who witness the results of Israel’s activities “on the ground”. The EU also has representatives in Tel Aviv and Brussels, who see things very differently and have been beavering away to increase cooperation between Israel and the Union.

We occasionally see newspaper articles in which Israeli ministers accuse the EU of meddling in Israel’s affairs or suggesting that the EU is biased towards the Palestinians. Yet if you dig even a tiny bit beneath the surface, you will see that this apparent tension is at odds with the real picture. The real picture is one where the EU has become so close to Israel that, I would argue, it has become complicit in Israel’s crimes against humanity.

DF: Not long after Operation Cast Lead, then NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer made a cordial visit to Israel (where his hosts drew a parallel between Israeli operations in Gaza and NATO operations in Afghanistan). You report that NATO-Israel relations may be set to deepen.

DC: We should never forget that in 2010, Israel killed eight Turkish citizens and one Turkish-American in international waters, while these activists were taking part in the Gaza Freedom Flotilla. I’m not an expert on these matters but my understanding is that this attack was tantamount to an act of war against Turkey, a member of NATO.

I think it’s fair to say that if Iran had done something comparable, NATO would have reacted forcefully. Yet Israel has a so-called “individual cooperation programme” with NATO since 2006, under which both sides share sensitive information; the scope of the programme was extended in 2008. Israel’s relationship with NATO has remained strong despite how the alliance condemned the flotilla attack. Shortly before Gabi Ashkenazi stepped down as head of the Israeli military last year, he was treated to a farewell dinner by senior NATO officers in Brussels. He also was called in to give NATO advice on how to fight the war in Afghanistan.

And Israel is taking part in a NATO operation in the Mediterranean called Active Endeavour. Originally, this was supposed to be an “anti-terrorism” initiative in response to the 11 September 2001 atrocities. But it has subsequently been broadened to cover immigration. What this means is that Israel is helping Western governments, especially Greece, to prevent vulnerable people fleeing poverty and persecution from reaching Europe’s shores. It’s quite disgusting.

DF: Turning back to the EU specifically, where does the recent Conformity Assessment and Acceptance of Industrial Products (ACAA) agreement fit in the broader struggle around Europe’s preferential trade ties with Israel?

DC: ACAA sounds dull and technical. But it is deeply political.

This is an agreement reached between the EU and Israel, whereby quality checks carried out by the Israeli authorities on manufactured goods would have the same status as similar checks carried out by authorities within the EU. At the moment, it’s limited to pharmaceutical products but it could easily be extended to other goods.

This agreement is a top priority for the Israelis because once it enters into force, Israel would take an important step towards being integrated into the EU’s single market.

To their credit, some members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have been asking difficult questions about ACAA for a few years. And this has meant that the Parliament has not yet approved the agreement. It’s not clear when the Parliament will make a final decision about the matter. There was a discussion at the Parliament’s foreign affairs committee in the past couple of weeks, where it was decided to delay holding a vote on the dossier until legal assurances are provided on the question of whether or not the agreement would apply to Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

It’s significant that the Israelis have hired a top public relations firm, Kreab Gavin Anderson, to help with their efforts to break the deadlock on ACAA. Kreab’s Brussels office is headed by a guy who used to be the chief adviser to MEPs with the Swedish Conservative Party. It cannot be a coincidence that one of the MEPs most vocal in supporting ACAA, Christoffer Fjellner, belongs to that party. He is arguing that if the agreement is not approved, Europeans will have less access to medicines. This is scaremongering, in my view, and is hypocritical because Fjellner is very supportive of the big players in the global pharmaceutical industry, who are actively seeking to use intellectual property issues to prevent the poor in Africa, Asia and Latin America from having access to affordable medicines.

DF: Even people writing for quasi-official EU publications have felt compelled to question ‘the sincerity of repeated declarations encouraging Palestinian unity’ from official spokespeople. How have EU donor and diplomatic policies contributed to fragmenting Palestinian politics?

DC: Those declarations have zero credibility.

The EU always claims that it wishes to promote democracy around the world. In 2006, an election took place in Palestine. The EU’s own observation team found the election to be free and fair and something of a model for the Arab world. And then the EU decided to ignore that election because in its eyes the “wrong” party – namely Hamas – won.

I’m personally not a fan of either Hamas nor Fatah but if Hamas won a democratic mandate, that should be respected.

It’s a classical colonial attitude for an imperial power to show preference for one side in an occupied territory over another. Divide and rule. That’s exactly what’s been happening in recent years. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, and Salam Fayyad, the so-called prime minister, lack any democratic mandate. Yet they are treated as real darlings by the EU and US. Why? Because rather than resisting the occupation, they accommodate it.

In particular, they are also happy to pursue the kind of neo-liberal economic policies that are treated as sacrosanct in Brussels and Washington. Salam Fayyad used to work for the International Monetary Fund and has clearly been inculcated with its ideology.

DF: Can you describe the EUPOL COPPS programme and its relationship to the US training of PA forces in the West Bank?

DC: This is another “divide and rule” case.

The EU’s police mission for Palestine (COPPS) was originally supposed to apply to both the West Bank and Gaza. But in practice it only applies to the West Bank because the Union refuses to deal with the Hamas administration in Gaza.

What has happened is that the EU is in charge of training civil police and the US has been charged of training more militarised police units in areas under control of the Palestinian Authority. We are told that this is helping the Palestinian Authority get ready to assume the responsibilities of statehood. This is nonsense. One of the key aims of the these training missions is to boost cooperation between the PA police and Israeli forces. So the EU is really helping Palestinians to police their own occupation.

Worse again, it has been documented that police loyal to Fatah have used brutal methods – including torture – against their political rivals. Even though these police are trained by the EU, the Union says nothing about these human rights abuses. This silence is shameful.

DF: Germany is reportedly in the process of selling Israel a sixth partially subsidized ‘Dolphin’ submarine. What’s the significance of these sales?

DC: I’d put these sales in the context of wider military cooperation between the EU and Israel.

As well as helping to arm Israel, Europe is helping Israel to sell its weaponry abroad. The British Army has been using Israeli unmanned warplanes, or drones as they are generally called, in Afghanistan, for example. The ethical question of using weapons that have been “battle-tested” in an obscene manner isn’t even broached in “polite society”. Drones were used extensively to kill and maim innocent civilians during Operation Cast Lead, Israel’s attack on Gaza in 2008 and 2009.

What’s also significant is that Israeli arms companies are receiving scientific research grants from the Union. These include Elbit and Israel Aerospace Industries, the two suppliers of drones used in Cast Lead. At the moment, Israel is taking part in 800 EU-financed research projects, which have a total value of 4 billion euros. This means that my tax is helping to subsidise Israel’s war industry.

DF: Historically, France has been seen as the European power most likely to challenge the US monopoly on diplomatic initiative in the Middle East. Is this reputation still deserved?

DC: Definitely not.

Jacques Chirac demonstrated occasionally that he could be independent of the US when he was president. But Nicolas Sarkozy has been much more of an “Atlanticist” – for example, he decided that France should participate more fully in NATO than it has for a number of decades.

I’m answering this question a few days before the second round of voting in France’s presidential election. If Francois Hollande wins, then I don’t predict any major changes in terms of France’s policy on Israel-Palestine. I hope, however, that I am proved wrong.

Hollande has been quite happy to pander to the Zionist lobby in France. Both he and Sarkozy turned up at the annual dinner of CRIF, the biggest pro-Israel lobby group in Paris, earlier this year. It was clear that Hollande wasn’t there to denounce Israel’s crimes.

DF: The Greek government brazenly cooperated with Israel in blocking the ‘Freedom Flotilla II’ from challenging the Gaza blockade last summer. You’ve suggested that specific US-Israeli pressure (‘possibly even financial blackmail’) was at work, but that the incident was also a ‘logical consequence of a process that was already underway’.

DC: Yeah. This is quite closely connected to the question you asked about NATO. Greece and Israel have been working together in NATO operations a lot recently.

George Papandreou, the former Greek prime minister, was quite happy to court Israel. When it became clear that relations between Israel and Turkey had soured, Papandreou sniffed an opportunity for Greece to replace Turkey as Israel’s key ally in the Mediterranean.

Even though Greece has been going through an economic nightmare, the Athens authorities have decided to take part in a series of military operations with Israel over the past few years. Let’s not forget that Greece has been spending more on the military as a proportion of national income than most countries in Europe. You can see why the Israeli arms industry would be interested in cultivating stronger links with Greece because, even though Greece is in the doldrums financially, it’s still spending much more than it should be on weapons, while cutting back drastically on essential services like healthcare.

DF: One of your recent articles notes that many of the British officers deployed in post-WWI Palestine were veterans of the Black and Tans, the colonial force infamous for its brutality in Ireland. How has the Irish anti-colonial experience affected Irish politics on the Palestine question?

DC: Among the Irish public, there is a huge amount of sympathy for the Palestinians. The Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign has been described by some Zionist watchdogs as the best organised Palestine solidarity group in the world. That’s very interesting because the IPSC relies almost entirely on volunteers.

The Dublin government is a different story. In the current Irish government, there are at least three strong supporters of Israel. These include the ministers for defence and education.

Last year, a number of Irish activists were abducted by Israel as they tried to sail to Gaza. The response of the Dublin government was extremely weak. The Irish foreign minister, Eamon Gilmore, even attended a ceremony film festival sponsored by the Israeli government soon after that incident. He appears to regard avoiding or minimising tension with Israel as a priority.

Furthermore, it should be borne in mind that it’s Ireland’s representative at the European Commission, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, who is administering the research grants to Israeli arms companies I mentioned earlier. She won’t even acknowledge that giving money to firms profiting from human rights abuses is problematic.

DF: In 2010, the European Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights issued a report criticizing EU maintenance of ‘anti-terrorist’ blacklists that effectively function ‘as ideological and political tools for undermining the right to popular resistance and self-determination.’ How do these lists constrain European politics on Palestine, and are there active campaigns to get them overturned?

DC: This is an important issue.

Israel has lobbied successfully over the past decade to have both the political and military wings of Hamas placed on the EU’s “anti-terrorist” blacklist. EU officials and governments have, as a result, been able to say “we don’t talk to terrorists”, even when the “terrorists” have a democratic mandate. I note, however, that there have been press reports lately indicating that Hamas has had some contacts with European governments. So perhaps this is changing a little bit. But in general, there is an enormous double standard, when the EU is happy to embrace Israel, a state that uses violence and intimidation against civilians on a daily basis, yet brands those who resist Israeli oppression as “terrorists”.

DF: Finally, in recent years the gap between European government support for Israel and public opinion has sometimes been so wide that the EU leadership has issued official apologies to Israel for polling results. What opportunities does this gap provide for strategic Palestine solidarity?

DC: The European public is way more critical of Israel than our governments are. This offers real hope.

The Palestinian call for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel was only launched in 2005. And it has made enormous progress. Veolia, the major French corporation, has ignominiously lost a number of major contracts around the world, for example. Why? Because of public outrage at how Veolia is involved in constructing a tramway that would effectively be reserved for Israeli settlers in East Jerusalem. This illustrates how supporting Israeli apartheid can prove bad for business if ordinary people monitor what corporations get up to and protest.

The BDS campaign is often compared to the one undertaken against South Africa. As it happens, the call for boycott was originally made by South African political activists in the 1950s. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that it had a major impact internationally. So the Palestinian BDS campaign has achieved in seven years what it took the South African campaign three decades to achieve.

The challenge now is to maintain the momentum – and intensify the pressure on Israel and its “corporate sponsors”.

  1. Cronin maintains a blog. []

Dan Freeman-Maloy is an activist and writer based in England. Read other articles by Dan, or visit Dan's website.