Friday, December 7, 2012

Not pleasant, but not terrible

Not pleasant, but not terrible

Boaz Bismuth

Calling an ambassador home is an unusual step, particularly in a relationship between two friendly countries. Officials in London and Paris are furious about Israel's decision to advance plans for settlement construction in the E1 area near Jerusalem, but we are nowhere near a point where the British and French ambassadors in Israel would be summoned to their home countries for consultations.

Europe does not like Israeli settlements in general. It even more strongly objects to construction in E1, which it views as a red flag. But Europe has many other troubles at the moment — severe unemployment, economic recession, illegal immigration — so there is a limit to how angry it can become about Israeli settlement construction in Judea and Samaria.

The diplomatic price paid by Israel was that its ambassadors in Paris, London and Stockholm were called in on Monday for meetings at the Foreign Ministry buildings in those capital cities. A similar step was taken by Spain, as if that country has no bigger problems than Israeli settlement construction.

In Israel, prognosticators of a diplomatic tsunami jumped into action. Europe, they predicted, would spank Israel abnormally harshly. Meanwhile, at the meetings in Europe, Israel's ambassadors were only being reprimanded. Not pleasant, but also not terrible.

After all, why should European countries consider calling their ambassadors home when this was already being done for them in Israel? The French newspapers Le Monde and Le Figaro reported that Britain and France were considering harsh sanctions against Israel. The source of this report was the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

It seems that this is the climate in which we now live. Yesterday, it was Haaretz. The day before this, it was former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who, while on a trip in the U.S., criticized the decision of Israel's democratically elected government. This is the same government that, according to polls, would survive a return to politics by Olmert, if he chooses to re-enter the ring.

For 16 years, I was an Israeli journalist in Paris. I was there during Operation Grapes of Wrath and the Second Intifada. During those times, there was great anger toward Israel, yet the French ambassador was never summoned home to Paris for consultations. Britain recalled its ambassador from Libya in 1984 after a British policewoman was shot from a window of the Libyan Embassy in London during a demonstration. There is a big difference.

One must understand that calling an ambassador home is a very severe step. Egypt recalled its ambassador from Israel during the First Lebanon War and the Second Intifada. Turkey did the same after the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010. Israeli diplomatic facilities in Venezuela, Qatar and Mauritania were shut down due to Operation Cast Lead in 2008-9, even though Tzipi Livni was foreign minister at the time.

"It is possible that the idea of recalling the ambassador came up, but only as one of many possible options, just as Israel considered many ideas in response to the decision of [Palestinian Authority President] Mahmoud Abbas [to seek nonmember observer state status at the U.N.], some of which were not realistic," a senior French diplomatic source in Paris told me on Monday. He explained that the Haaretz report was rooted in a "clear agenda that some of your newspapers have, certainly as an election approaches."

But what is truly worrying in this whole affair is the lack of proportionality exhibited by European nations. Did the foreign ministries in London, Paris, Madrid and Stockholm express the same outrage when only two weeks ago residents of southern Israel were living in bomb shelters for days on end? Were Palestinian representatives called in for talks when Abbas chose to take unilateral steps? Has Europe ever asked Abbas why he continues to manipulate, maneuver, and play games? No, because for Europe the story today is that Israel is seeking to go ahead with construction in E1 because it opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state, as if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Bar-Ilan speech had not been translated into other languages.

The demographic changes taking place in important European nations are worrying. These changes are causing the governments of those nations to pay heed to Muslim voters on issues like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Things will not become easier in the future. But we have survived worse.