How Europe aids the occupation: David Cronin interviewed

David Cronin

In his new book Europe’s Alliance with Israel: Aiding the Occupation, journalist David Cronin traces the intricacies of the relationship between the State of Israel and institutions such as the European Union and NATO. In doing so, it exposes the bad faith behind Europe’s position as a neutral force and its claims to support the basic rights of the Palestinian people. Sarah Irving interviews David Cronin for The Electronic Intifada.

Sarah Irving: Your background is mainly as a writer on European affairs and institutions. What made you want to write about Europe’s relationship with Israel and the Palestinians?

David Cronin: A couple of things. Firstly, I was in Israel and the OPT [occupied Palestinian territories] in 2001, as part of an EU “peace mission” shortly after the 11 September 2001 attacks in the US. I remember in particular going to a press conference that [former Israeli Prime Minister] Ariel Sharon gave in the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and being very shocked by the arrogance and vitriol I saw coming from him. He started off welcoming people to — I can’t remember his exact words — something like the “eternal capital of the Jewish people for the past 3,000 years” without conceding in any way that it was also the capital of the world’s other two great monotheistic religions. He talked about how he rejoiced every time a Palestinian suicide bomber blew themselves up, because Palestinians were killing themselves in the process. I was shocked by this, but the other thing he said was to accuse the EU of funding “Palestinian terrorism,” and I’d never heard this before, it was all new to me.

I suppose I was a bit gullible and you think there’s no smoke without fire, so at least it conveyed the impression to me that the EU was supporting the Palestinians. Chris Patten was the EU’s External Relations commissioner at the time and he was very skillfully presenting the EU as an “honest broker” — constantly emphasizing that the EU was doing what it could to further the “peace process,” that the EU was the biggest donor to the Palestinian Authority and helping it to develop an embryonic Palestinian state. I took a lot of things at face value.

The turning point for me was quite mundane. I attended a conference organized by one of the UN committees on Palestine in the European Parliament in Brussels in 2007, and there was a session which addressed the EU’s relationship with Israel. That was the first time that I really became aware of the other side of the story or was given any real information about how far the EU is in bed with Israel. I was struck by the fact that there was a lot of literature — the works of [Noam] Chomsky and so on — on America’s relationship with Israel, but nothing apart from a couple of academic publications addressing Europe’s relations with Israel. So I decided that if no one else was going to write a book about it I might as well have a go myself.

SI: What do you see as the strongest “push” factors behind Europe’s attitudes? You identify various elements in the book — Holocaust guilt, economic self-interest, US influence — what are the main forces within this interplay of capitalist and political forces?

DC: It’s a combination of things. Henry Kissinger once said that the EU would never in a million years be a significant player in the Middle East. There’s no doubt that America is still the big player in global politics and continues to be despite the rise of China, but the EU is far from powerless. It’s Israel’s largest trading partner and the largest provider of aid to the PA, so in economic terms it has a lot of leverage.

The EU’s association with Israel is based on an agreement that came into effect in 2000; article 2 of that agreement states that it’s conditional on respect for human rights. EU officials argue that the human rights clause is aspirational, but lawyers say it’s what the EU itself calls an “essential element.” It’s clearly legally binding and there is an obligation on the part of the EU to invoke that clause and if necessary punish Israel when it steps out of line. I argue that the problem is one of cowardice — there is no political will to stand up to either the Israelis or to American hegemonic power in global affairs.

Israel has been developing closer relations with both the EU and NATO and the same strategic thinking is driving that, and in some cases the same people are driving the process. Tzipi Livni, when she was [Israeli] foreign minister, realized that it might be a mistake for Israel to be overly dependent on the US. She and her advisers realized that there were other emerging powers in the world. They got agreements to upgrade Israel’s relationships with the EU and with NATO at the same time, November 2008. Gabi Ashkenazi, the head of the Israeli army, has visited NATO headquarters on many occasions and Israel has taken part in joint NATO exercises. In July 2010 a number of Israeli soldiers were killed in a helicopter crash in Romania. It received very little attention in the mainstream press, but it’s a clue to how intimately Israel is involved in EU-NATO affairs.

SI: A lot of the book is about what Israel gets out of the relationship. But what are the benefits for the EU?

DC: That’s a good question, because it’s debatable whether it’s really in EU interests to buddy up to Israel in the way that it has. There is a school of thought, and I have some sympathy with this, that the EU would be better off forgetting about Israel and concentrating on developing closer relations with Arab states. But the main factors are the business and economic opportunities.

Back in 2000, under the Lisbon Agenda, the EU set an official target of becoming the most advanced information-based economy in the world. But where the EU talks about it, the Israelis have gone ahead and done it. Intel is developing the next generation of computer chips in its facility in Israel. A lot of the “sexy” developments on the Internet have been developed there. The Israelis devote something like 5 percent of their GDP to technological research, roughly twice as much as the Americans. The Lisbon Agenda set an objective of 3 percent, but in most cases has failed to deliver. So the most important aspect of the EU’s relationship with Israel is scientific cooperation. The Israelis have been part of the EU’s Framework Program on Scientific Research since the 1990s — I saw some figures last week saying that there are 800 EU scientific research projects in which the Israelis are involved and their value comes to something like 4.3 billion Euros between 2007 and 2013. There is a feeling amongst EU officialdom that it needs to have good relations with the Israelis because they are so scientifically advanced.

The flip side is that a lot of the scientific triumphs that the Israelis celebrate are intimately linked to the occupation. As I mention in the book, Elbit [the maker of drones used in Gaza] and Israeli Aircraft Industries are amongst the beneficiaries of EU scientific research grants. From an EU taxpayer’s point of view, we are aiding the Israeli war industry.

SI: At the recent NATO summit a new missile defense program was announced with Russian cooperation for the first time, apparently intended to operate from US warships in the Mediterranean. What implications does this have for Israel’s relations with NATO?

DC: A lot. If we talk about what happened with the [Gaza aid] flotilla, legally that was an attack on Turkey. The Mavi Marmara was a Turkish ship and Turkey is a member of NATO and called for an emergency meeting of NATO after that attack. We can only imagine what the reaction would have been if that was North Korea, for example, all hell would have broken loose. But this was Israel, so although there was a strongly-worded statement released by NATO condemning the attack, there have been no long-term repercussions. I gather that there is even still military cooperation between Turkey and Israel, and Turkey has been using Israeli weapons in its attacks on the Kurds in northern Iraq.

In terms of the new NATO strategic concept and missile defense system, there’s been a lot of talk about involving Israel. A lot of NATO officials have, I know, gone to Israel and there have been conferences in Airport City near Tel Aviv on how Israel will cooperate with this project. Israel has developed a lot of technology that NATO is very interested in, such as the Iron Dome missile intercept system, so the Israelis are certainly up to speed and being consulted, and it’s quite conceivable that they have a direct role in the new missile defense system that NATO is getting all excited about.

SI: Leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy in France talk a lot about Iran’s nuclear program but ignore Israel’s. Do you give any credence to the “Samson option,” the theory that European nations are acutely aware of the battery of Israeli nuclear weapons which could destroy any European capital with almost no warning?

DC: Sometimes you have to state the obvious but the point here, which most commentators unfortunately miss, is that the level of hypocrisy is astounding. We know that Israel has a very considerable nuclear capability and has never come clean about it. Unlike Iran, it’s not party to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and doesn’t allow any inspections of its facilities, but the Iranians are told that they cannot develop any nuclear capability while we know the Israelis already have this. The double standards are very obvious. In terms of the “Samson option,” it probably is something that’s in the minds of EU leaders. It’s not something I’ve looked into, but I wouldn’t dismiss that theory.

SI: Researchers like Daoud Hamoudi at Stop The Wall have raised serious concerns about industrial zones which are being funded, supposedly as “aid,” by European countries. Israeli settlements have already been using cheap Palestinian labor for export production for many years. Export processing zones in Southern Africa and Central America have often brought dire working conditions and been short-lived sources of prosperity, until a competitor country lowers its standards even further. Is this a future we could see in Palestine?

DC: We have to ask why the EU is so keen on promoting Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad. Their democratic legitimacy is virtually nil. Abbas’ term as elected president has expired. The EU presents itself as upholding democratic principles and — rightly — tells candidates for membership that they have to live up to certain standards, yet in the case of the Palestinian territories it’s forgotten them. It decided to ignore the results of a democratic election in 2006 because the Palestinians, in the EU and America’s eyes, “voted the wrong way.”

The case of Salam Fayyad is particularly troubling. Here’s a guy who’s not very popular at all amongst his own people but is a real darling of the West. We have to ask why that is, and the only answer I can come up with is that he’s been inculcated with the neoliberal way of thinking that pervades Washington and Brussels. He’s a former employee of the World Bank and the IMF and, as I say in the book, the paper that he drew up — “Towards a Palestinian State” — is very similar to the kind of structural adjustment programs that the IMF forced on much of Africa in the 1980s and has been preparing to force on my own country, Ireland. We’re talking about slashing public sector wages and expenditure in most areas except — significantly — security, and making the private sector the engine of growth. So your analysis is spot on, the idea of Palestine being a sweatshop for Israel.

SI: You’ve written for The Electronic Intifada about EU involvement in training the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, supposedly as a state-building program. What do you think the EU’s vision of Palestine looks like? Are we talking about a very small area with tight security and an economically neoliberal regime?

DC: I’m not sure if I’d even use the word “vision” — I’m not sure the EU has any vision. The “two-state solution” is a kind of mantra for the EU, but I don’t think there’s much serious analysis of what they mean by that. The Oslo accords, for all their flaws, did at least talk about Gaza and the West Bank as one unit but now it’s almost impossible for a Palestinian to travel between them, and Israel controls too much of the West Bank for a viable two-state solution. I think the EU’s representatives are hiding behind rhetoric at the moment. They’re not presenting any long-term strategic thinking about where they want to go, other than to strengthen their relationship with Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.

We should bear in mind that the EU is presenting the COPPS police mission [the EU training mission in the West Bank] as a kind of precursor to a police force for an independent Palestinian state, but these guys have no authority to arrest Israeli settlers or to go into Area C [parts of the West Bank where, under the Oslo accords, Israel retains control over law enforcement and building and planning]. More than 60 percent of the West Bank is off-limits to this police force. There is also a lot of prima facie evidence that the EU is turning a blind eye to abuses carried out by the Palestinian police. There’s evidence of torture being gathered by Palestinian human rights organizations, so it’s quite disgusting that the EU is presenting this as a benign aid to the Palestinians.

SI: One of the problems with books is that they can be out of date as soon as they come off the press. Are there any major developments that you’d flag up in the EU’s relationship with Israel?

DC: The main thing is that in autumn 2010 Kathy Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief, recommended that Israel should be elevated to the status of a “strategic partner.” It’s not entirely clear what this means, but it suggests that Israel would get the same ranking as the US or China in how it’s prioritized by EU officialdom.

Ashton has been a disaster in her relations with Israel. To be fair she has made some strong statements about Jerusalem and the expansion of Israeli settlements there, and about the prison sentence handed down to [grassroots activist] Abdullah Abu Rahmeh, which surprised some people. But otherwise she’s treated the Israelis with kid gloves. She’s gone to Gaza a couple of times, but refused to meet Hamas — she’s tried to present the missions as entirely humanitarian and downplayed any political significance. Whatever you think of Hamas, they won an election that was recognized as free and fair by the EU’s own observers in 2006. It’s inconceivable that Kathy Ashton would go anywhere else in the world and refuse to meet the local political leadership. When she was in Jerusalem this summer she gave a joint press conference with [Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor] Lieberman and the only prisoner that she expressed any concern about, in public at least, was Gilad Shalit. She totally ignored the fact that every year Israel locks up 700 Palestinian children, in most cases for nothing more serious than throwing stones, and in many cases they’re abused in jail. But Kathy Ashton in her wisdom doesn’t seem to be interested in the abuse of Palestinian children and is more interested in the fate of a soldier who should certainly be treated humanely and released, but who was enforcing a brutal military occupation.

SI: You end your book with the argument that the European Union presents opportunities for campaigners for Palestinian sovereignty. What do you see as the most effective tactics? Are Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) worth targeting?

SI: I’ll answer the second question first. I was opposed to the Lisbon Treaty, but one good thing is that it has given more powers to the European Parliament which, for all its flaws, is a directly-elected institution. I didn’t go into this in much detail in the book, but of the three main EU institutions — the Council of Ministers, the European Commission and the Parliament — the Parliament has been the least malleable. Despite very heavy lobbying, a majority of MEPs supported the Goldstone report into the attack on Gaza in 2008-09. More recently, the European Parliament has been blocking a technical agreement which would make it easier for Israeli industrial goods to comply with EU rules by harmonizing standards. It’s quite boring and very unsexy but the European Parliament, or at least one of its committees, has been asking awkward questions and has delayed the entry into force of this agreement.

So it might not be able to freeze all relations with Israel, but the parliament can certainly make life more difficult for it. There is definitely a case for EU citizens to put pressure on their MEPs to get them to stand up to pressure from the Israel lobby. There’s a lot of lobbying by Israel and there’s a “Friends of Israel” cross-party alliance so it’s very important that the Palestine solidarity movement counteracts this very well-resourced and nontransparent lobby that’s trying to influence key institutions.

To the other question, I think to put it very simply and perhaps crudely, ordinary people can’t wait for their politicians and civil servants to take action against Israel. That’s why I think the BDS [boycott, divestment and sanctions] campaign should be supported. But we shouldn’t forget that it’s a tactic, not an entire strategy, and we need to use other tactics as well. Israel invests a lot of time, energy and money in presenting itself as “the only democracy in the Middle East,” and the Palestine solidarity movement needs to marshal all its resources to counter this very slick propaganda.

Image courtesy of David Cronin.

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.