There is an easy way for a mediocre politician to grab headlines: upset the Israel lobby. Karel de Gucht, the European commissioner for trade, discovered this to his cost in September when asked about Middle East “peace” talks on the Flemish radio station VRT.
Deviating from the official EU script, de Gucht rated the chances of the Obama administration resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict as extremely low. After describing the Zionist lobby as the “best organised” in US politics and inferring that it was a major obstacle to progress, he expressed a view about how Jews in general perceive Israel. “There is indeed a belief – it’s difficult to describe it otherwise – among most Jews that they are right,” he said. “And a belief is something that’s difficult to counter with rational arguments.”
Clearly, these comments lacked nuance and someone in de Gucht’s position should be wary of making blanket statements about an entire religious or ethnic group. But did they actually betoken hostility to Jews or, as The Wall Street Journal claimed, constitute an “anti-Semitic riff”?
One consequence of de Gucht’s remarks is that they highlighted how the Israel lobby is a force not only on Capitol Hill, but in Brussels, too, and that it is attempting to stifle debate about Israel’s sadistic treatment of the Palestinian people.
It is telling that the European Jewish Congress (EJC) reacted by alleging that sharply-worded criticism of Israel amounted to the same thing as hatred for Jews. “What sort of environment allows such remarks to be made openly by a senior politician?” the EJC’s president Moshe Kantor wondered. “This is part of a dangerous trend of incitement against Jews and Israel in Europe that needs to be stamped out immediately.”
While the overwhelming majority of Palestine solidarity and human rights activists – and indeed millions of decent people – can see a difference between Zionism as an ideology that is little more than a century old and Judaism as a religion dating back several millennia, the Israel lobby has been eager to blur the distinction between the two. Lamentably, it has had considerable success in convincing policy-makers that anyone who dares speak the truth about Israel should be labelled an anti-Semite.
In 2005, the European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia – subsequently renamed the Fundamental Rights Agency – accepted a working definition of anti-Semitism. It stated that anti-Semitism is “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred towards Jews”. As well as being directed towards Jewish religious institutions, displays of anti-Semitism could “target the state of Israel, conceived as a Jewish entity,” the definition said. Examples of anti-Semitism given in an accompanying document included “claiming that the existence of the state of Israel is a racist endeavour” and “drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”
This definition was not the result of painstaking research by neutral observers. Rather, the monitoring centre has acknowledged that it was drafted in consultation with the aforementioned EJC, along with the American Jewish Committee.
Gauging exactly how much power the Israel lobby wields in Europe is fraught. Most of the relevant organisations are secretive about their activities. The Transatlantic Institute – a Brussels-based front for the American Jewish Committee – appears to be the only such grouping to have entered some details into a voluntary register of “interest representatives” set up by the European Commission. Apart from its address and phone number, all its entry reveals is that it has a reported budget of €255,000 for 2010.
Nor should the power of the lobby be exaggerated. The decision by EU and NATO – both headquartered in Brussels - to forge ever-closer ties with Israel over the past decade are largely explained by geo-strategic factors. Israel has skilfully – and cynically - positioned itself as an indispensable ally to the “war on terror” declared by George W. Bush. Moreover, its status as a key EU “partner” for scientific research is due to how Israeli firms have pioneered technologies ranging from instant messaging for the Internet to the drones used by NATO forces in bombing Afghanistan and Pakistan, Turkey in northern Iraq and, of course, by Israel itself in Gaza.
Although this deepening of relations may well have occurred without the growth of pro-Israel lobby groups in Brussels, those groups have certainly acted as a kind of match-maker. Conscious that the US may not dominate global politics during this century as stridently as it did in the second half of the twentieth century, the American Jewish Committee has decided that it must also influence important players outside Washington. And so it opened the Transatlantic Institute in Brussels six years ago, at a time when the EU’s efforts to present more cohesive foreign and military policies to the wider world were bearing fruit.
As well as persuading policy-makers to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, the Transatlantic Institute has acted as an apologist for Israeli war crimes, while simultaneously pounding the drumbeat of war towards Iran. In January 2009, the institute’s then director Emanuele Ottolenghi wrote a piece for the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, in which he gloated at how “Iran got a bloody nose” through Israel’s three-week offensive against Gaza. (Ottolenghi’s theory was based on his assertion that because Iran had shown Hamas how to fire rockets further into southern Israel than it previously could, pain inflicted on Hamas could be felt in Tehran).
Like all propagandists, the Israel lobby feels under no obligation to tell the truth. After Israel’s murderous attack on the Gaza Freedom Flotilla at the end of May this year, the EJC tried to smear the nine Turkish peace activists killed. Moshe Kantor called on the EU to place the Foundation for Human Rights and Freedoms and Humanitarian Relief (known by its Turkish acronym IHH) on its list of terrorist organisations. In a letter to Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign policy chief, Kantor said that the IHH’s “ties to terrorist activities have been well-documented” yet cited no sources to support that accusation.
Fortunately, the Israel lobby is not yet as influential in Brussels as it is in Washington. Whereas the number of US legislators prepared to berate Israel can often be counted on one hand (a mere five members of Congress opposed the attack on Gaza in January 2009), the European Parliament has occasionally been willing to resist pressure from pro-Israel lobbyists. In March this year, MEPs were inundated with messages from the EJC urging them to reject a resolution endorsing the report of an official United Nations investigation into the Gaza attacks. (Headed by retired South African judge Richard Goldstone, the report stated that Israel had committed war crimes). To its credit, the Parliament still approved the resolution by 335 votes to 287.
That does not mean, however, that MEPs can always be relied on to defend the rights of the Palestinians. On the contrary, Zionist zealots have pulled off something of a public relations coup within the Parliament. Since September 2009, the assembly’s official delegation to the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, has been headed by Bastiaan Belder, a Dutch Christian fundamentalist who maintains that Israel does everything it can to avoid civilian casualties when it bombs the occupied Palestinian territories. Under Belder’s leadership, meetings of his delegation have been highly partisan; at one such meeting the main guest speaker was the aforementioned Emanuele Ottolenghi.
Another important initiative within the Parliament has been the foundation in 2006 of the European Friends of Israel (EFI). Functioning as a cross-party alliance of MEPs, it is at least partly modelled on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the best known pro-Israel lobby group in Washington. Dimtri Dombret, the EFI’s first director, has confirmed to me that he has attended several AIPAC events and studied how it operates.
Among the most active participants in the EFI is Charles Tannock, the foreign policy spokesman for Britain’s Conservative MEPs. Tannock is something of a mouthpiece for Israeli diplomats. In September, he urged colleagues to “be unswerving in our condemnation of Iran’s appalling human rights record”. By contrast, he has defended Israel’s human rights abuses; following the flotilla attack, he parroted the whitewash from the Netanyahu government by declaring: “What is sure is that the IDF [Israel Defence Force] had no intention to use lethal force”.
Writing in 1946, George Orwell stated that political language is “designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable.” The Israel lobby has elevated this language into an artform.
·First published by Spinwatch (www.spinwatch.org), 6 November 2010