BRUSSELS, Feb 2, 2010 (IPS) - Defenders of Israel’s aggressive stance have for many years been recognised as a powerful force shaping United States foreign policy. A less well-known fact is that the pro-Israel lobby has been making a concerted effort to strengthen its presence in Europe.
The lobby’s determination to make an impression on European Union policy-makers was exemplified by a new booklet published on Jan. 28.
Titled 'Squaring the Circle?: EU-Israel Relations and the Peace Process in the Middle East’, the booklet advocates that EU should "rebalance its priorities" and pursue closer relations with Israel regardless of whether progress is made in resolving the conflict with the Palestinians.
Unlike the plethora of publications on EU affairs that quickly fade into obscurity, there are good reasons to believe that this one will not go unnoticed in the corridors of power.
First, it was published by the Centre of European Studies, the official think-tank for the network of Christian Democrat and conservative parties that dominate European governments.
Secondly, its author, Emanuele Ottolenghi, has already demonstrated his capability to catch the eyes of politicians by penning several pamphlets for Labour Friends of Israel, a group that boasts of the top figures in Britain’s ruling party among its members.
Ottolenghi is the director of the Transatlantic Institute. Also styling itself as a think-tank, this Brussels-based institute was set up by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in 2004.
"The AJC is the foreign policy wing of the Israel lobby," says Muhammad Idrees Ahmad, a researcher in Scotland’s University of Strathclyde, who monitors the activities of hawkish pro-Israel groups for the website neoconeurope.eu "The two places that it has decided to focus on most are Latin America and Europe. This is because it has a sense that American power might be in decline."
The AJC has been successful in convincing the EU that many criticisms of Israel can be considered as a general slur on Jews. In 2005, the EU’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (which has been subsequently renamed the Fundamental Rights Agency) published a working definition on anti-Semitism, admitting that it had been drawn up in consultation with the AJC and the like-minded Anti-Defamation League.
According to this definition says that criticisms of Israel, which contend that the establishment of that state was a "racist endeavour" or which compare Israel’s attacks on the Palestinians to the behaviour of the Nazis during the Second World War, should be considered as anti-Semitism. Ottolenghi’s new booklet invokes that definition to call on the EU to declare campaigners critical of Israel ineligible for funding from those sections of Union’s budget dealing with the promotion of human rights and democracy. It is "curious," he argued that EU financial support has gone to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) "whose work depicts Israel as a racist society and an apartheid regime."
"In other words, EU Commission money is helping certain NGOs spread a message that, according to another EU agency, is considered to be anti-Semitic and thus against EU values," he wrote.
Ottolenghi has been active, too, in urging the EU to adopt a tough line against Iran’s nuclear ambitions. His book 'Under a Mushroom Cloud,’ which was published last year, posited the theory that Arab leaders are unconcerned by how Israel had developed nuclear weapons of its own decades before Iran started work on its nuclear programme.
"Arab leaders sleep soundly under the shadow of Israel’s nuclear umbrella; it is Iran’s nuclear quest which gives them nightmares," Ottolenghi wrote. "They know - they have always known - that Israel’s military prowess serves its survival and does not seek to impose a political diktat on its neighbours. The same cannot be said of Iran, with its hegemonic ambitions, and its desire to refashion the region."
Yet since the book was published Arab governments sponsored a resolution on Israel passed by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The resolution noted that Israel is the only state in the region that has not signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, a 1968 agreement designed to curb the spread of nuclear weapons. This was the first such call directed at Israel approved by the IAEA, an official body of the United Nations, in 18 years.
Along with the AJC, several other pro-Israel lobby groups have opened new offices in Brussels over the past decade. These include the European Jewish Congress and B’nai B’rith. Another group, the European Friends of Israel (EFI), has been formed as a cross-party alliance of members of the European Parliament (MEPs).
During Israel’s offensive against Gaza last year, the EFI circulated briefing papers that defended the killing of Palestinian civilians. According to the EFI, it was impossible for Israel to avoid civilian deaths because Hamas, a Palestinian resistance movement, had ordered its members "to discard uniforms and dress in regular clothes that made them indistinguishable from the civilian population".
Michael Gahler, a German Christian Democrat MEP who describes himself as pro-Israel, said that such lobby groups have "always been very influential" in Europe. Gahler argued, though, that the groups should not ignore the widespread opposition in Europe to Israeli actions in the occupied Palestinian territories. "They should be here and listen," he told IPS. "They should not only be a loudspeaker."
Luisa Morgantini, a former vice-president of the European Parliament and a veteran Palestinian solidarity activist, said that all forms of racism and anti-Semitism must be opposed.
But Morgantini also suggests that pro-Israel groups are exploiting the history of Jewish suffering in Europe to dissuade its modern-day politicians from taking robust action against Israeli oppression in Palestine. "They are using the holocaust as blackmail," she said. "It is time for us to stop this blackmail."