The annual EU-Israel Association Council meeting was meant to be about trade, but it was mostly about the next round of war between Israel and its Arab neighbours.
At the Council for the European Union in Brussels last Tuesday, Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s deputy prime minister and foreign minister, announced that “Syria is the biggest concern today” and that if Syria were to provide “chemical and biological weapons to Hezbollah” then Israel would consider this a “casus belli [justification for acts of war]” which will lead to a “completely different ballgame”.
Having picked up expressions like ‘ballgame’, Lieberman is obviously used to addressing North American interlocutors, but the Europeans understood the lingo. Concerning Iran, after three rounds of negotiations, Lieberman simply said that Israel “cannot negotiate forever”.
These statements come in the aftermath of the bus bombing in Bulgaria on July 20 in which five Israeli citizens were killed. This was the worst attack on Israeli citizens outside of Israel since the 1994 bombing of a Jewish centre in Argentina, killing 85 people. On both accounts, Hezbollah is accused.
And that was how Lieberman connected the dots: Hezbollah and Iran are accused of being behind the Bulgaria bombing, Syria is allied to both, so if Syria provides chemical weapons to Hezbollah, then Israel will attack Syria, and Iran would most probably respond, giving the US the reason Israel has been looking for to declare war as well.
Recall that Israel is the only nuclear power in the Middle East and that Iran’s quest for nuclear power is perceived as a threat to Israel’s regional hegemony. Nuclear parity between Israel and Iran would indeed change the regional equation. Israel’s response was to kill some Iranian scientists. There was virtually no international condemnation for such extra-judicial killings. And then there’s Gaza.
Israel was also most probably behind the assassination in February 2008 of one of Hezbollah’s top men, Emad Mughniyeh, in Damascus — no international condemnation, rather congratulations from Washington. Then there was the bombing of the nerve centre of the Syrian regime earlier this month that could not possibly have been the work of the Free Syrian Army or other inexperienced rebels.
As the revolts in Syria become increasingly significant, Lieberman is encouraging disastrous regional implications by upping the ante. Politically, he is also calling on the EU to put Hezbollah on its blacklist as a terrorist organisation, something Washington did after the Beirut bombings that decimated the US Embassy in 1983.
Here’s another EU inconsistency: while Hamas has never carried out any extra-territorial attacks against Israeli citizens, the Palestinian group is on the EU blacklist; but Hezbollah has purportedly carried out such attacks and is not on the EU blacklist, but this time the attack occurred on European soil.
Acting on behalf of the Cypriot EU presidency, Foreign Minister of Cyprus, Erato Kozakou-Markoullis had a prepared response to the Israeli appeal for the terrorist branding of Hezbollah. Such a decision, like all pan-European decisions, requires unanimity among the 27 member states — no small feat — and more importantly the Lebanese Party of God is an integral part of the Lebanese government.
Hezbollah has been part of the State of Lebanon since the 1990s and declaring it a terrorist group would essentially give Israel carte blanche for some more carpet bombing of its northern neighbour. This would be the occasion for Israel to restore its military dominance after its poor display in the July 2006 war against Lebanon which Hezbollah effectively did not lose.
Israel is therefore pushing this political agenda to create a military escalation that would provide the necessary casus belli while advancing in tandem with incremental economic trade clauses with the EU. Not surprisingly, the EU-Israel Association Agreement is now extended to December 2012, after 12 years of “solid, vibrant partnership” since June 2000, according to Kozakou-Markoullis.
More disconcerting is the overshadowing of European concern for the “situation of the Arab minority and the Bedouin community” in Israel — as expressed by EU Neighbourhood Commissioner Stefan Füle — with the announcement of intensifying relations with Israel via 60 new activities in 15 different fields!
Here is an occasion for Brussels to say ‘no more trade until you respect some basic tenets of international law and the most elementary human rights’, but instead the Europeans are exploring greater economic and scientific cooperation with Israel.
Israel remains the EU’s biggest trading partner (with a cumulative trade balance of €30 billion (Dh110 billion) in 2011, which explains in part the move towards more trade than ever, and highlights how masterful Israel has become at wagging the dog.
Israel is in a win-win situation: with attention diverted by terrorist attacks and the threat of chemical warfare, the source of the regional opposition to Israel — the occupation of Palestine — remains unaddressed as ever… and the Europeans keep on paying and getting paid.
Stuart Reigeluth is editor of Revolve magazine and works at the Council for European Palestinian Relations in Brussels.