Israel and Europe: The Positive and the Negative
An Interview with Hildegard Müller
"Israeli-European relations have to be analyzed in their totality. One cannot look only at the positive or the negative. Each of my many trips to Israel enlightens me on its multiple scientific, trade, economic, and other contacts with Europe. On the other hand, the European Union's vote in 2004 in the UN General Assembly, in favor of the resolution condemning Israel with respect to its security fence, will be a burden on European-Israeli political relations."
Hildegard Müller, a banker by profession, is a member of the German parliament for the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and chairperson of the German-Israel Parliamentary Friendship Group. She adds: "Israel's security interest requires it to act in order to protect its citizens. The building of a security fence - and in some places a wall - is legitimate. Yet friends of Israel are entitled to discuss whether its location is the correct one. One can expect friends to point out difficult and critical issues. This should not be defined as a denial of Israel's interests.
"Israelis should not consider all criticism as anti-Semitism. It is not anti-Semitism to say that at certain points the fence should be checked. Even the Israeli Supreme Court has said so. Many Israelis tell me that the fence is an Israeli issue and beyond discussion. This seems a wrong reaction, but I have also heard other ones.
"The judgment of the International Court of Justice in The Hague against Israel, however, was not balanced. The German judge's support for this decision should not be regarded as a German political position. In Germany there is a strong separation between the executive, legislative, and judiciary powers. I cannot understand why Germany voted for the UN resolution."
Discussion among Friends
"Europeans and Israelis also have to discuss Israel's settlement policy. When traveling through Israel, I often ask myself: 'Why has this village been built here?' I think, as a friend of Israel, I am allowed to ask whether this policy is correct. I am in favor of existential rights for two states.
"I often have the feeling that we, friends of Israel, do not express our criticism. Whenever I did, both in Israel and with Israeli representatives in Germany, my experience was that reactions were very open-minded.
"In Europe there are countries that are friendly toward Israel and others that are less so. Those politicians who are on Israel's side feel themselves a bit helpless receiving criticism from both sides. European critics consider that we are too pro-Israeli while Israelis say to us: 'You are old friends of ours. Why are you are so pro-Palestinian?'
"The EU only rarely succeeds in coordinating its foreign policy. This has become even more difficult now that there are twenty-five members instead of fifteen. Only on a few foreign policy matters does Europe have a common vision. There have always been conflicts on EU foreign policy, including Middle Eastern issues. I would like Europe to commit itself more in the Middle East. Yet I realize that the EU's vote, such as on the security fence, disqualifies it to some extent from such a role."
Funding the Palestinians
When asked whether she believes that the EU's investigation has made it clear how the Palestinian Authority uses European money, Müller replies: "I doubt it. I am sure that a substantial investigation was carried out. As a professional banker I am aware, however, how difficult it is to gain full insight into financial realities. The EU and Germany will have to do all they can to ensure that none of their funds for the Palestinian Authority are used for terror or corruption. If this cannot be accomplished, the moneys should be frozen.
"The European Parliament has frozen funding to Hamas, yet this has been done too slowly. The discussions on the financing of the Palestinian Authority in Germany do not go according to political parties. In Germany there is no sympathy for indirectly participating in the financing of terror. Nor would there be support for Palestinian terror or corruption in the Bundestag. This may lead to consequences if we do not get better transparency about the use of EU funding of the Palestinians. In Germany, the media also report more frequently now on the personal failures of Arafat.
"The CDU European Parliamentary fraction belongs to that of the European People's Party. Several of our key Euro-parliamentarians try to ascertain that the EU funding arrives only at constructive Palestinian projects for which it is intended, and that it is properly controlled. It is the EU's responsibility to give answers. I can fully understand Israel's anger in view of how slow the EU has been in dealing with these matters. For me, however, the attitude toward Hamas is the best example of this.
"Also the hate promotion in Palestinian schoolbooks is unacceptable. The more so if it is financed with moneys from the EU or its member states. The EU would do well to review its control processes."
"Israel's problematic image in Europe is partly due to the media. Somebody who serves up news without verifying its truth or obtaining a second opinion is not a good journalist. We have to confront the problem that the media have to a better job researching the news that they cover.
"Yet another factor is the David and Goliath effect. Israel is perceived as a Goliath whereas the Palestinians are seen as weak. The media always show the same pictures. We might call them 'news preserves.' These include stone-throwing Palestinian youths confronting Israeli tanks, the latter driving into a refugee camp, or the Israeli army bombing a house with full military force. Nobody inquires why the same pictures always return.
"Several other factors also play a part. Many newspapers have no editors anymore for specific topics. They take their news from the press agencies, such as Agence France-Presse. The next day one finds the same news in tens of newspapers. No journalist in any of these media has checked the truth of this information. Slowly an overall picture is created: a small Palestinian force fights against the high-tech Israeli army. This creates the distorted image of David versus Goliath."
Israel Has Friends in Europe
Müller says: "It is very important that Israelis do not have the false perception that their country is being attacked by everybody. Israel has friends in Europe who generally support it. If Israel proposes concrete approaches to bringing the truth to the light, it can find friends and partners in Europe to help it. The Israeli government should not only complain about what is going wrong, but think much harder on what can be done to improve the situation. Many of Israel's problems in Europe result from poor information. Since Israel is the subject of the distorted news, it has to take the initiative to change this. Those who support it in Europe can then join in.
Müller mentions that the German parliament has six hundred members. "The largest bilateral friendship group is with the United States. The German-Israeli one is the second largest with 102 members. The CDU chose this as the first one it preferred to have the chair of, to which I was elected.
"Against the background of the persecution and murder of the European Jews, Germany and Europe have a special relationship with the state of Israel. Germany is conscious of its history and bears special responsibility within the EU for Israel's well-being as a Jewish democratic state, and has to work for Israel's right to exist in safe borders.
"Close political, economic, and cultural relations with Israel underline the fact that economic development and political stability in the region are clearly in the European Union's interest. Regardless of the repeated outbreaks of political tension, Israel and the EU have maintained dynamic trade relations over the decades. In 1995 the two sides signed an association agreement, which came into force in 2000. The EU is Israel's most important trading partner. Around 30% of Israeli imports come from the EU countries, and the latter receive a third of Israel's exports. Today, 6% of more than six million Israelis hold a passport from an EU country. Another 14%, or 700,000 people, are entitled to apply for one because they or their parents come from an EU member state."
Israel: A Member of the EU?
"Despite public European-Israeli tensions, an opinion poll in March 2004 showed that 85% of Israelis were in favor of their country's application for accession to the European Union. Sixty percent were clearly in favor, while a quarter lent support to the idea.
"President Moshe Katsav told a newspaper that he hoped Israel would be able to join the EU in the near future. The chairman of the Labor party, Shimon Peres, would like to see Jordan and the future Palestinian state also join the EU along with Israel. He has the impression that Javier Solana, the EU's high representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, and Joschka Fischer, the German foreign minister, view this idea very favorably and would like to examine it in greater detail. Amid all the euphoria and enthusiasm about Israeli accession to the EU, however, we need to look at the facts, which all too often have a more sobering effect."
Müller says that "one has to be aware of the formal requirements for a state to become part of the EU. The admission process for countries wishing to join is extremely complicated and arduous. Candidates must fulfill a long list of requirements, the so-called Copenhagen criteria. There are still major hurdles Israel would need to pass, despite its many positive characteristics. It is indeed the only genuine democracy in the Middle East. Europe and Israel share many common values and fundamental beliefs. One topical example is combating international terrorism carried out by religious extremists. It is also in Israel's favor that it is a significant trading and economic partner."
The CDU's View of Europe
At a joint conference of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation and the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs in June 2004 in Jerusalem, Müller elaborated on the CDU's view of Europe. "To us, the European Union is far more than a glorified free trade area. We see it as a political union both for citizens and friendly European nations. Our values and shared historical experience of tyranny and despotism in Europe during the last century place on us a particular responsibility toward human life and to apply justice to protect inalienable human rights, democracy, and the rule of law.
"For this reason, Europe's Judeo-Christian inheritance should also be explicitly encouraged in the future European constitution. The Christian and Jewish values of freedom, solidarity, and justice should guide our actions as we try to shape the EU's future in a responsible manner.
"Since the EU admitted new member states in May 2004, it has been extending mainly toward the east the structures of a community oriented toward prosperity, social justice, the rule of law, and democracy. This major round of enlargement brings great political, economic, and cultural benefits to the EU and its people. The accession of ten new states, however, also poses an enormous challenge for the Union. Therefore, before accession negotiations are started with other countries, the experiences of the most recent round of enlargement must first be evaluated.
"A balance must be maintained between the widening and the deepening of the European Union. The CDU, therefore, advocates that no decision be taken in the near future on starting negotiations with further states. There are many historical examples indicating that the ability of legal systems and institutions to integrate their members should not be overstrained. Otherwise they will inevitably be weakened and perhaps disintegrate. Admitting further members would place too great a burden on the EU in its current state and would carry the risk of regression to a mere free trade area."
Alternatives to Full Membership
Müller says that the EU needs an alternative avenue to full membership. "It could, for example, be modeled along the lines of the European Economic Area (EEA). States that are unable or do not wish to become full members of the EU for the foreseeable future would in this way be able to have a close relationship with the EU without lengthy delays. In addition to the international market, this agreement could also encompass issues such as internal and external security. It would be a privileged partnership and thus offer prospects for Israel, and perhaps also later for Israel's neighbors. Since the early 1990s the EU has indeed been trying to develop a joint policy with some countries in the Middle East including Israel.
"Europe must recognize that geographically neither Israel nor the Middle East as a whole are part of Europe. In practice, however, Europe has for a long time been connected with the Middle East in diverse ways. In the past, the region's politics directly affected life in Europe. They impact it today as well. The suggestion of a privileged partnership instead of accession corresponds more closely to the European Union views of Israel and the Middle East than do the proposals and approaches that have so far constituted the European-Mediterranean dialogue.
"Such a partnership would need to go beyond a customs union. It would also have to involve Israel in a European security and defense policy with both security guarantees and the corresponding obligations. It could also form the basis for further cooperation, together with other partners in combating terrorism, extremism, and crime. This could be done partly by intensifying cooperation between security agencies.
"Europe must recognize that if it genuinely wants peace in the Middle East, it needs to offer security. Only if Israel's security is guaranteed can new trust be created. There is scarcely a single other state in the world besides Israel that is not a member of a regional alliance. The reasons for that are not primarily of Israel's making. Europe can help alleviate the feeling of isolation resulting from this. If Europe made a clear commitment to Israel's security through a privileged partnership, this would be one step closer to greater trust and peace in the region. At a later date, this partnership could then open the door to a political union, like that currently being formed in Europe with walls and fences having come down between states."
Guests Abusing Freedom
Müller observes: "On the other side of the balance, there are the new forms of both European and German anti-Semitism. The German Left has made major mistakes. Their negative attitude toward the United States has led to an extreme pro-Palestinian position and a negative attitude toward Israel. Germany should make it clear that anti-Semitism is no longer linked to the old right-wing extremism, but is today present also on the left side of the political spectrum.
"It was a major mistake of the EU to try and suppress the study on European anti-Semitism undertaken on its behalf by the Center for Research on Anti-Semitism. The document pointed, among other things, to anti-Semitism among European Muslims in several countries. In Germany there are other problems concerning developments in the Muslim community. Some of its members are against free democratic rights in the country. We have changed the immigration laws, and also the security laws will have to be improved.
"It is our duty to be careful that nobody who is entitled to stay as our guest, an immigrant for instance, can abuse the freedom existing in Germany for hateful attacks against Israel. There have been anti-Israeli demonstrations in Berlin that go beyond what is acceptable in a democracy. It is our role as politicians to tell the authorities that they should not give permits for these demonstrations. Allowing these expresses a mistaken friendliness toward foreigners."
When asked whether there is a fatigue about the Holocaust in Germany, Müller replies: "I do not share the opinion of people who say: 'the remembrance now has to finally be finished.' I think that is wrong. We still bear responsibility, which we always must be aware of - also in the future.
"German schoolchildren today have parents who were born after the Second World War. There is nowadays in Germany both a social awareness and school education to ensure that such horrors never happen again. As the older generations loaded the heavy guilt on themselves, we today must take care to ensure that history is never repeated. It is normal that German school classes deal with the resulting responsibility, and that teachers also discuss this part of the German past with their pupils.
"Nothing relieves us of our duty to tell the history clearly to our youth so that responsibility in this matter remains alive. One could say that guilt has now been replaced by responsibility, which will stay with us. It must lead to a German policy whereby similar actions to those of the past are confronted."
The United Nations
Müller observes: "International law in its current state is not able to resolve internal conflicts within countries. I expect the United Nations to occupy itself with new phenomena such as terror with new weapons, including biological and atomic ones. The United Nations does not have a sufficiently clear position on these issues. Germans should play a stronger role to advance them in the UN. But we should not write off the UN and consider that they are incapable of finding solutions. Where the UN is too slow, Europe and Germany must be willing to take clear-cut positions.
"One cannot consider the UN responsible for what happened in Rwanda. The responsibility rests with those who committed the crimes. However, one should learn lessons from the UN's looking away from this genocide. If one asks what mechanism the UN has developed since this failure, then the answer must be that what has been done so far is insufficient and constitutes a major malfunction. One weakness of the UN is its procedure of passing resolutions. These should define what should be done in nongovernmental conflicts, attacks on human rights, and so forth. Probably there are more discussions in the United Nations about the Middle East than Rwanda because the UN is aware of its guilt in the latter case.
"Many countries in the United Nations are not interested in Israel's security. It should be the responsibility of the UN Security Council and Europe to place this issue again on the agenda of the United Nations. That this does not happen demonstrates once again that there is no common European foreign policy.
"Yet the UN Human Rights Commission has chosen Libya as its chair with European support. This is an evident failure of Europe. It has led to a strong political debate in Germany on why we have gone along with this.
Finding a Common Way
Müller concludes: "Israelis and Europeans should not give up the fight for a common understanding. Despite all the difficulties, there are no alternatives. We will not find other friends so rapidly and thus must stay together. A more intensive European-Israeli dialogue should be initiated.
"As said, this should be done through a privileged partnership of Israel with the EU. It makes no sense to discuss Israel's membership in the EU as long as the Middle East conflict is continuing. The EU also has economic criteria that make Israeli membership difficult. Nevertheless, an association with stronger cooperation in certain areas is needed. It should be well defined. Scientific cooperation is one of these.
"A European security guarantee for Israel must be part of such a privileged partnership. That means the EU should defend Israel's borders whenever necessary. One has to see whether there is a majority in favor of such a privileged partnership.
"In politics one has to fight continuously. One should not be discouraged by failures. Democrats have to work together. It would be disastrous if, in view of the current difficulties, we were to turn our backs on each other; the Israelis because they are disappointed and the Europeans because they believe the Israelis do not understand them.
"One should never wait for the other side to make the first step. I ask my Israeli friends not to write off the Europeans as unreliable. If it came to a vote in Germany, there would never be one against the right of Israel's existence. I also ask my Israeli friends to look at every aspect of the relations between Europe and Israel, the positive and the negative ones. That is the only way to assess reality."
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Hildegard Müller is now in her second term as a member of the German Bundestag, representing the city of Düsseldorf. She is chairwoman of the German-Israeli Parliamentary Friendship Group and a member of the Committee on Health and Social Security. Müller is also a member of the presidium of the CDU. She has studied business economics, is a banker by profession, and an employee of Dresdner Bank.
Interview by Manfred Gerstenfeld
The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect
those of the Board of Fellows of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.