The following transcript addresses European domestic and foreign policy since the start of the Arab Spring and in light of Iran’s nuclear ambitions. It also discusses increasing antisemitism in Europe. It is part of a symposium entitled, “Regime Collapse and Sectarian War: Where is the Middle East Headed?” The symposium was held on March 15, 2015, to mark the launch of the newly named Rubin Center for International Affairs in honor of MERIA founder and former editor the late Prof. Barry Rubin.
Editor’s Note: Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, the world has witnessed the collapse of a number of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and the consequent opening of an ungoverned space. Two formerly strong states, Iraq and Syria, have ceased to exist. The result has been the emergence of a series of paramilitary and political organizations–most based on ethnic and sectarian identity–all competing for control on the ground of what were once those states. There has also been an attempt by existing and intact regional powers to move into that space to take advantage of it for themselves. The Islamic Republic of Iran now controls part–though not all–of Yemen, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon, while Turkey is another contender. This symposium examines this issue from a number of different angles, including the role the West has played.
The fixation on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict–and the total misconception that accompanies it–is a fundamental aspect, even one of the root causes, of Europe’s general inability to act rationally in the face of the Middle East crisis, and there is no indication that this can be changed, unfortunately. The massive rate of unexpected antisemitism is a result, by and large, of this misconception. It has spread like a cancer, and this too is, to a large extent, a consequence of the misinterpretation of the Middle East reality.
I was recently on a TV show where a journalist told me that the January 2015 attack on the kosher market in Paris, after what happened in Gaza, was a logical consequence of the fact that the Israeli soldiers “kill the children while they are sleeping.” It is not unusual to hear such statements. When Europe thinks of Middle East, its judgment is completely wrong about Gaza, Hamas, terrorism, antisemitism, and the war of defense.
According to recent surveys, 63 percent of the Poles, 48 percent of the Germans, 41 percent of Britons, 42 percent of Hungarians, and 37 percent of Italians believe that “Israel is conducting a war of extermination against the Palestinians.” Sixty percent of Italians and Belgians; 48 percent of Europeans, all in all, believe that “the Israelis behave toward the Palestinians like the Nazis did toward the Jews.” If we don’t have this in mind, we cannot understand how Europe behaves toward the problems in the Middle East. This is the prism through which they see what is going on over here.
Antisemitism these days is just “Israelophobia,” a component of the common misconception that sees Hamas as a victim and Gaza as a Czechoslovakia invaded by Hitler. It willingly ignores the problems of any asymmetric war and disregards Hamas’s call to exterminate the Jews. There is a conceptual hole about radical Islamist terrorism that is now putting European life itself in danger. In the face of these multiple conflicts and fragmentation of the Middle East, Europe is at risk of a total nervous breakdown, to the sort of depression that leads to inactivity, and no pill can fix it.
Since the Arab Spring, Europe has no longer been able to count on friendly leaders, even if those “friendly” leaders were problematic–like Qaddafi, who nevertheless assured oil supply; or Mubarak, who, whatever he might have been, was stable, friendly, and moderate. Today, Europe is in a very bad situation after having applauded the crowds of people that Europeans immediately identified as “democrats,” though that was certainly not their main characteristic.
The religious and jihadi aspects were ignored until they showed their face. Egypt, which now is luckily in the hands of al-Sisi, fell into the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood, but Europe followed Obama’s orders to consider them moderate. The rebels in Syria were ignored–even as hundreds of thousands of innocent people, children, died–until the extremists overcame the anti-Assad rebels and it became ISIS. As a result, oil is today in hostile hands; price instability creates fear. Europe is geographically in the middle of the ISIS storm, welcoming ships of refugees of dubious identity from the Middle East.
European public opinion is astonished by beheadings and unprecedented atrocities committed by ISIS. On February 15, 2015, ISIS released a video of it murdering 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians on those same Libyan shores from which each week thousands of people set sail for Europe. One of the murderers in the video points to the coast of Europe and says, “We will conquer Rome by the will of Allah.”
Refugees from Syria and Iraq join the people that embark on those dangerous journeys. In 2014, 200,000 people sought to reach Europe. This is compared to the 60,000 of the previous year, according to the UN refugee agency UNHCR (5,600 in the first two months of 2015, double the total for the same months in 2014).
The UK counterterrorism think tank Quilliam recently translated an ISIS paper explaining its strategy toward Libya. ISIS plans to take control of its coastline and infiltrate among migrant boats in order to sneak into Europe. ISIS fighters from Syria have also joined the refugees crossing the Syria-Turkey border on their way to Greece, the Balkans, and then Western Europe. Once they enter Europe, they ask for political asylum, and it’s done. Then they can freely travel in Schengen Europe without borders. They don’t have to show documents anymore if they sneak into Europe.
Europe’s immigration policies are not new, of course, but are now beginning to show their high price. Asylum seekers cannot be expelled, and often it is difficult to prove the identity of the asylum seeker. Moreover, family reunification also facilitates immigration. In this respect, Catholic associations, hoping that one day they will be able to convert these immigrants, have done a lot to support immigration.
When Europe realized the Libyan danger, Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and French President François Hollande spoke about military intervention. This was the first time they had ever done something like this; it was a surprise. The parliament was ready for a decisive discussion, but at the end of the day, everybody, including the UN, stepped back to “political solutions.” While Sisi was the only one asking for a UN resolution authorizing an international military coalition, Europe had already stepped back.
Interestingly, Hamas threatened Italy. Hamas said that any intervention in a Muslim country like Libya would be considered a new crusade against Muslims. This didn’t deter the Italian parliament from approving a resolution in favor of a Palestinian state–as so many other European states had–on exactly the same day. It was a very mild resolution. Italy is a good country that doesn’t really hate Israel all that much. The resolution was much milder than all the others, like those of France or northern Europe.
The problem is that even in Italy, the intimidation worked. The traditional political correctness of calling it “Islamophobia,” on the one hand, leads European leaders to repeat that terror is not part of Islam, and on the other, to approve a Palestinian state in every parliament. It is two branches of the same tree: the tree of defeat.
Still, Europe is now becoming more aware of being in a great new danger. Five thousand EU citizens are current or former ISIS fighters. Very often, they are second- or even third-generation Europeans–homegrown French, Belgian, British, and Italian citizens. They are young Europeans trying to find their identity not on the path of integration but by joining the war for an Islamist world dominated by Shari’a. Jihadi John, for example, is a young, middle-class man from London, and cutting heads for him is the immense stage of a reality show on which he is the protagonist.
Intelligence services of European countries coordinate to impede terrorists from returning or leaving Europe, but in both cases this means a restriction of the principle of freedom of movement, a cornerstone of Europe’s human rights. Europe is very worried about developing new policies or adopting new legislations that would change its moral characteristic. To this day, Europe refuses to address the problem of radical Islamism.
And then, there is the fact that negotiation is a sacred cow of the European mindset. Europe thinks that through negotiations, you can reach a deal with anybody. Abu Mazen, for example, is the negotiator par excellence, even if he refuses to go back to the negotiating table.
It is impossible for Europe to recognize the ideological mindset rooted in religion that repudiates any negotiated agreement. Its post-Second World War ideology rejects the use of force and national ambitions. Still, it approves national ambition when it is the Palestinian national ambition. Yet when Israel says it wants to be the state of the Jews, this is nationalism, and it is condemned even by those who are “friendly” to Israel.
With regards to Iran, we can count a little–but not much–on the fact that France has always tried to remain independent from the United States. French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius does not agree with the path the United States has taken. He believes the United States has gone too far. France reportedly sent Washington a counterproposal to the Iran deal in February 2015. Yet Mogherini, Ashton’s successor, has declared that the discussions are progressing and that she believes in their success. At the same time, however, there is the hope in Europe that Iran and ISIS’s extremism will at last present the opportunity to form a coalition with the moderate Arabs–Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan–though it is hard to say if such a coalition would last.
Europe has thus shown signs of uncertainty in the area of foreign policy. This isn’t surprising; Europe doesn’t really have a coherent foreign policy and has never had one. The only issue Europe feels entirely confident about is the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And as I’ve said, I believe Europe’s conceptual troubles are rooted in its misconceptions regarding Israel, the Palestinians, Gaza, and Hamas. Europe’s blind approach and aggressive policies toward Israel stem from the erroneous, obtuse consideration that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the source of the turmoil in the Middle East. Everything is about the “occupation,” the “occupied territories,” and the “settlements.” No mention of anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli incitement, or of terrorist apology.
The attitude toward the 2014 Gaza war shows the lack of international understanding. An entire continent has displayed its hatred toward a democratic state fighting a legitimate war of self-defense against a dictatorial, theocratic, and murderous organization that sympathizes with ISIS in Libya, receives money from Qatar and Iran, marries out 10-year-old girls to adult men, and persecutes homosexuals and Christians. Given that this is the underlying political approach, how can we pretend that Europe understands Hizballah, ISIS, or Iran?
European policies toward the Middle East have always been a mix of opportunism and self-proclaimed anti-colonialism, with a consistent dose of anti-Americanism and “Lawrence of Arabia” ambitions. The Venice Agreement of 1980 sanctioned this policy. The then nine members of the ECC and the PLO convened to declare the rights of the Palestinian people. At the same time, intellectuals were falling in love with the Iranian Khomeinist revolution. This was also the worst period of the Palestinian terrorist attacks against Israelis and against Jews in Munich, Paris, and Rome; and underground governments were making failing agreements with terrorist organizations, like the PLO, to avoid attacks on their soil.
The Jewish question, while this hostility towards Israel was developing, was always mentioned as a moral issue connected to the memory of the Holocaust. Every European state had adopted the politics of “never again,” and it took a long time before the Berlin OSCE conference connected antisemitism with “Israelophobia” in 2004. The working definition, nevertheless, suddenly mysteriously disappeared. It doesn’t exist anymore on the website of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency.
Even after a long sequence of antisemitic attacks, the text has not been resumed, though Mogherini recently announced a new commission to fight antisemitism. In my opinion, this will be another occasion for organizing study trips to Auschwitz, school programs about the past, and knowledge of the Jewish heritage. There is nothing bad in this, but this is not the central problem. The main problem is Israelophobia, and we must fight harshly and decisively against this phenomenon and therefore face the problem of radical Islamism. This path would lead precisely to where Europe doesn’t want to go: fighting jihadism, racist Islamist attitudes, and terrorism; becoming familiar with the history and reality of Israel, and the Middle East. To this day–with the exception of French Prime Minister Manuel Valls–I have not heard from a single European leader a clear accusation of the Israelophobia that characterizes the new antisemitism.
The antisemitism has spread from London to Paris to Greece. There is also much cause for alarm due to the neo-Fascist and neo-Nazi groups that infest Hungary and Greece, and which have some influence in England and France. But the problem that which Ilam Halimi’s mother tried to communicate to the police when her son was abducted in Paris in 2006. She immediately said that it was an act of antisemitism, but the police didn’t believe her. In the end, they found his body; he had been tortured by a band of Muslim fanatics.
In Malmö, Sweden, one in 10 citizens are of Middle-Eastern or African origin, and ethnic Swedes are no longer a majority among 15 year-olds. A journalist wearing a Star of David was insulted and called “Jewish shit” and “Satan Jew.” Sixty thousand Jews have left Europe over the past decade, including 7,000 from France in 2014.
While Europe is asking its Jews to stay, the BDS movement has infested European cultural and economic institutions. The EU’s 2013 guidelines ban cooperation with Israeli entities beyond the Green Line. Holland has adopted them, and even Romania then declared that it would not send workers to the settlements. Some of the most recent cases are shocking: British academics endorsed the boycott against Israel; Germany’s government refused to label BDS as antisemitism because there is no academic, shared definition of the phenomenon; a Belgian doctor told a Jewish patient “go to Gaza,” and another used the word “Gazacaust,” referring to the war; a German judge ruled that the arson of a synagogue during the demonstrations last summer was not an act of antisemitism but only a criticism of the Gaza War.
Why is this happening? Europe has no real foreign policy, no hymn. It has the Ode to Joy, from Beethoven’s Fifth, but the Europeans cannot sing a song together. They are completely divided. They don’t have an army; they abhor conflict and identity. They hate nationality, have deep difficulty in dealing with a situation where violence is involved, don’t like to have to discuss or criticize anything that has to do with ethnicity or religion.
The Council of Europe produces rules that promote a pathological idea of human rights, which protects terrorist ideas in name of freedom of thought and polygamy in the name of multiculturalism. The massive EU parliament, which costs about 140 billion Euros a year, is engaged in creating rules to promote large, smoke-free areas and green energy, and–simultaneously–to protect burqas and to eliminate the Christmas tree and Chanukah in state schools–which nevertheless offer halal food.
When the Arab Spring came about, the European intelligentsia reacted as it had in 1979 toward the Khomeini revolution in Iran. The hope for democracy in the Arab Spring countries was totally delusional. Moreover, Europe’s complex intellectual and sentimental relations with America triggered a dreadful process: anti-Americanism led to anti-Zionism, which exacerbated antisemitism; Obamism strengthened Europe’s defeatism and relativism.
Europe dreamed of a Mediterranean Sea surrounded by friendly Arab nations, which would offer oil and holiday beaches, even if ruled by corrupt leaders. Berlusconi laughed about Qaddafi, but invited him to Rome with a red carpet welcome. Now, the new situation in the Middle East (while the same can be said about the Crimea crisis) highlights Europe’s weaknesses even further. Its political incapability is striking in the face of the Christian genocide by ISIS. The Europeans, should put a stop to it. The dream of a friendly neighborhood has turned into a nightmare both inside Europe’s borders and on the sea.
Europe must create a foreign policy; if not now when? First, it must leave behind its hatred towards Israel, overcoming the idea that solving the conflict with the Palestinians is the key to a general peace. Second, it should support Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, which have already understood the need for a new Middle East. Ideologically, it should define the danger and accept the idea that sometimes defending one’s national, religious, and ethnic identity in the face of a corrosive enemy is a duty. Instead of spending billions to finance NGOs with ties to radical Islamist organizations, Europe should be investing more in a common defense structure.
Hon. Fiamma Nirenstein is a journalist, author, and leading columnist for Il Giornale daily. She served as Vice-president of the Committee on Foreign Affairs of the Italian Parliament and as a Member of the Italian Delegation to the Council of Europe. During her mandate, she established and chaired the Parliamentary Committee for the Inquiry into Antisemitism, as well as the Institutional Cooperation Committee between the Knesset and the Chamber of Deputies. She is a fellow at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, serving as advisor on European Affairs, and a member of several advisory boards within the Genesis Prize Selection Committee, Gatestone Institute, NGO Monitor, and Friends of Israel chaired by former Spanish Prime Minister José Aznar. She is one of the six founding members of the Interparliamentary Coalition on Combating Antisemitism (ICCA). Between 2011 and 2013, she was also Chairperson of the International Council of Jewish Parliamentarians (ICJP). Nirenstein has authored ten books and in Italy, has prefaced Bernard Lewis and Natan Sharansky. She has received 18 awards for her journalistic and literary work as well as for her parliamentary commitment.