Book Review: Europe’s Alliance with Israel

From the eastern side of the Atlantic, it’s easy to pin all the world’s ills on the United States. Other Western countries may have perpetrated their share of imperialistic crimes but since World War II, Washington’s global might has meant that other nations’ evils can often be chalked up as following-the-leader, willingly or otherwise.

David Cronin’s immensely valuable new book, Europe’s Alliance with Israel: Aiding the Occupation, does not entirely reject this position. But in charting how the European Union (EU) and its member states back Israel, Cronin dispels the idea that the US is the only game in town (and that those of us who aren’t resident there can therefore change nothing), while also offering activists new targets for institutional lobbying and boycotts.

The bulk of Europe’s Alliance with Israel is a meticulous documentation of the ways in which a variety of institutions — the European Union (and its major constituent bodies, the European Parliament, the European Council, the Council of Ministers and the European Commission), North American Treaty Organization (NATO) and various European states — have, despite superficial commitments to the “peace process,” consistently sold out Palestinian rights and interests. And the list is a long one.

Cronin starts by cataloging European toleration of Israeli human rights abuses and infringements of international law. He cites the fact that just five EU states (Ireland, Cyprus, Portugal, Malta and Slovenia) supported the UN General Assembly acceptance of the Goldstone Report into war crimes in Gaza, with the remaining 22 opposing or abstaining. This is contrasted with the strong EU positions taken on, for example, the Georgia-Russia conflict of summer 2008, controversies over the treatment of civilians by the Sri Lanka government during its offensive against the Tamil Tigers in spring 2009, or attacks on ethnic Albanians in Kosovo.

Cronin quotes senior EU figures such as Javier Solana and Benita Ferrero Waldner on the ever-nearer relations between the EU and Israel. At a presidential conference in Jerusalem in October 2009, Solana even claimed that the relationship was closer, even, than the EU’s ties to new and recent additions like Croatia. “There is no country outside the European continent that has this type of relationship that Israel has with the European Union,” the then EU foreign policy chief was quoted as saying in Israeli newspaper Haaretz, going on to joke that: “I am sorry to say, but I don’t see the president of Croatia here. His country is a candidate for the European Union, but your relation today with the European Union is stronger than [our] relation to Croatia.”

Cronin’s background and experience as a journalist covering European affairs is evident in these and other details. The direct quotes from senior — often anonymous — sources and access to obscure or confidential correspondence and reports demonstrate his exhaustive knowledge of the famously Byzantine workings of the EU’s institutions.

Cronin examines Israel’s progressive integration into the EU’s scientific research and development programs, and the collaboration of EU researchers with Israeli arms manufacturers.  He notes that Israel was the first country outside the EU to be brought into its research funding programs and cites the huge sums involved — 204 million euros during the 2002-2006 finance round and possibly over half a billion euros in 2007-2013.

Discussing the incorporation of Israel into supposedly civilian aviation and aerospace projects such as the “green” Clean Sky initiative and the Galileo satellite project, Cronin quotes his interview with Janez Potocnik, the EU commissioner for scientific research from 2004-2009, whose position he calls “Jesuitical and deceptive.” Responding to questions on whether working with the Israeli military had been excluded as an option for European-funded researchers, Potocnik said, “Defense is not part of the 7th Framework Programme [on scientific research]. We have space and security as themes for the first time [neither were included in previous versions of the multi-annual programs]. But there is nothing that would be defense-related in any context.”

But Cronin also quotes contacts within the EU who have confirmed that Israeli ministry of defense staff were present at negotiations on EU bankrolling of research projects. He reports that some Commission negotiators were concerned about the pressure being exerted by Israeli officials at their meetings, but that, “As part of a tacit policy of trusting the Israeli authorities, the Commission does not normally carry out background checks on Israeli officials that it deals with. ‘These guys [defense officials] are present in the system,’ a Commission insider told me. ‘It is unbelievable that their backgrounds aren’t checked.’”

According to Cronin, millions of euros in research funding have also gone to Israeli companies with major military operations, including direct funding of drone development by Elbit and Israel Aviation Industries.

Cronin’s access to EU officials willing to talk off the record also illuminates the huge gap between EU claims to fund and collaborate only with organizations within “Israel’s legally recognized borders,” and the reality of its relationship with Israel’s illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem and Golan Heights. Research finance has, according to Cronin, reached academic institutions in settlements in both the occupied West Bank and Golan Heights, while cultural funding has ended up with organizations based in occupied East Jerusalem.

In the case of funds allocated to corporations, he recounts how EU officials on the ground are denied information which would reveal whether they were in fact dealing with settlements. “After they were made aware of how grants they were administering were going to Israeli settlements, EU officials pledged to do what they could,” writes Cronin. But instead of taking making firm commitments to block settlement products taking advantage of trade preferences, Palestine solidarity activists reported that the EU kept its promises verbal, and that its rules remained painfully easy to get around. “All a firm in a settlement would have to do is set up a front company in Tel Aviv or another Israeli town or city and it could apply for EU funding, without EU officials knowing that its real work is done on occupied land,” Cronin concludes.

EU bodies are also revealed to have dragged their feet over excluding settlement goods from trade preferences (which mean they can be imported into Europe without duties being paid), with the German and Dutch governments “staunchly opposing” efforts to stop settlement products getting preferential treatment.

Even after the bar was in theory enforced, evidence that settlement produce was being illegally sneaked into Europe without taxes being paid on it was sidelined. “Although they learned through the grapevine that the British authorities had discovered that two out of 26 companies based in Israeli settlements that they had investigated were benefiting illegally from EU trade preferences, Brussels officials said they could not do anything until a dossier had been transmitted to them through formal channels,” writes Cronin.

By actively bankrolling parts of the Israeli military-industrial complex and settlement economy, Cronin argues that the EU is both ignoring its legal duties and cheating its own taxpayers by enabling Israel to abdicate its responsibilities under international law. The EU makes much of its status as the largest donor to the Palestinian Authority (PA), arguing that this demonstrates its commitment to the welfare of the Palestinian people and its position as an “honest broker” in the Middle East conflict.

But as Cronin demonstrates, the 1907 Hague Regulations impose upon occupying powers the duty to ensure the welfare of occupied populations. But by continuing to pay for food and other basic aid, the EU is assuming Israel’s responsibilities under international law and underwriting its occupation. In addition, the huge sums spent on aid to the PA often go straight to Israeli food and utility companies, many of which are directly complicit with human rights abuses such as the siege on Gaza, now in its forty-second month.

On top of this, Cronin says, senior EU figures have consistently shown “cowardice” in refusing to pursue the Israeli military for the cost of European-funded infrastructure projects which have been damaged or destroyed in repeated Israeli invasions. “Privately, EU officials acknowledge that the aid policies they are implementing have become hugely problematic. ‘Are we subsidizing activities that should fall on Israel as a consequence of its responsibilities as an occupying power?’ a well-placed Brussels source said to me. ‘The answer is unquestionably yes,’” writes Cronin.

While the EU’s continued aid to the PA is said to be part of a “tacit division of labor” with the US, whereby Washington holds the political reins and Europe the financial ones, Cronin provides examples of US refusal to allow joint donor statements which criticized Israel for damage to donor-funded projects illustrating the EU’s junior role in that relationship. In the meantime, the EU’s “aid” is also revealed by Cronin’s writings — both in the book and for The Electronic Intifada — to include the far-from-benign training given by European police organizations to PA security forces.

Cronin offers a range of causes underlying the EU’s sometimes pyrrhic support for Israel. He cites the power of justifiable Holocaust guilt, whilst pointing out that this doesn’t excuse imposing military occupation on a Palestinian population which had nothing to do with the Shoah. The common fear of “militant Islam” also raises its ugly head.

Cronin mentions the economic interests which European companies such as Volvo and Dexia maintain in Israel, and the fascination which Israeli technological development seems to hold for EU officials. Economic influences have included, says Cronin, the “’EU-Israel business dialogue,’ a forum in which senior businessmen (with perhaps one or two women) could brainstorm on how best ‘barriers to trade and investment’ can be stripped away.”

The strength of the European Israel lobby is a key point in the book’s arguments. Cronin highlights groups such as European Friends of Israel, the highest profile pro-Israel lobby in the European Parliament with links to better-known US campaigners such as AIPAC, or the pseudo-respectable Transatlantic Institute (its opening graced by senior EU figures like Javier Solana). The Transatlantic Institute is an offshoot of the American Jewish Committee which also runs the UN Watch organization that infamously called author Naomi Klein “Goebbels-like” for her criticisms of Israel.

First and foremost, Cronin sees the US dominance of foreign policy — of the EU itself and of many of its member states — as key to the EU’s support for Israel. Whether through the desire of European states like the United Kingdom to maintain their “special relationship” with the US, or through the influence of US-based lobby groups and the impact of their lobbying and “monitoring” activities on parliamentarians, officials and the press, the hand of American politicians and lobbyists is seen as a major force shaping EU policy and practice.

David Cronin has written a very important book. Its detailed cataloguing of the links between European institutions and the Israeli state and economy is long overdue. The book benefits from Cronin’s journalistic roots and is written in a readable style.

If any criticism can be leveled at Europe’s Alliance with Israel it is that it presupposes, or deems unnecessary, a level of knowledge about the workings of the EU and other European institutions that many readers won’t possess. The activities of the European Union, European Parliament, Council of Ministers, European Commission and other institutions in relation to Israel are discussed without explanations for the uninitiated of how these organizations interact, what their powers and spheres of interest are or what countries and regions they represent.

This book should be required reading for anyone trying to understand the scale of international support for the State of Israel, for any European Palestine Solidarity activist looking to assess how their energies are best used, and for students of the EU wanting to understand the workings and wider impacts of European policy.

Sarah Irving is a freelance writer. She worked with the International Solidarity Movement in the occupied West Bank in 2001-02 and with Olive Co-op, promoting fair trade Palestinian products and solidarity visits, in 2004-06. She now writes full-time on a range of issues, including Palestine. Her first book, Gaza: Beneath the Bombs, co-authored with Sharyn Lock, was published in January 2010. She is currently working on a new edition of the Bradt Guide to Palestine and a biography of Leila Khaled.

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