Friday, February 24, 2017

Israel lobby's squirming over settlements won't fool anyone

The task of Israel’s advocates has become a lot more complicated.

At least, that is the argument which one such lobbyist has been making. Alex Benjamin, head of the organization Europe Israel Public Affairs (EIPA), recently lamented that his friends and acquaintances in Brussels weren’t enamored by moves towards annexing most of the West Bank.

Even the “occasional barman” has been voicing his displeasure at how Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, authorized the large-scale theft of Palestinian land, Benjamin has suggested. In a blog post, he asked if there was nobody available to rein in the Israeli government and say that the Knesset bill was “nakedly hostile, unnecessary and wrong.”

Does his mini-rant herald a split in the Israel lobby? Is Benjamin’s EIPA about to rupture its connections to Israel’s settler movement in protest at these “nakedly hostile” activities?

I very much doubt it.

EIPA – which styles itself as a leading pro-Israel group working inside the Brussels bureaucracy – has made no attempt before now to distance itself from politicians who favor annexing Area C, a zone comprising more than 60 percent of the West Bank.

Menachem Margolin, EIPA’s founder, has stated that he wishes to “do great things together” with Naftali Bennett, Israel’s education minister. Bennett was already a vocal advocate of annexation when Margolin expressed that desire.

Bennett has also personally boasted of killing “lots of Arabs,” while his Jewish Home party colleague justice minister Ayelet Shaked, has become notorious for disseminating a call for genocide of the Palestinians.

EIPA cannot have been caught by surprise that Bennett was jubilant when the Knesset bill was approved earlier this month.

Playing by the rules?

Although Benjamin described the recent bill as “wrong,” his post exemplifies how he is more troubled with image and perception than morality and legality.

For the EU, he writes, the settlement issue has become the “principal impediment to peace” and “whether we like it or not these are the rules of the game here.”

The rules to which he refers are tacit.

Every Israeli government since 1967 has been involved in colonizing the West Bank. Some have been a little more subtle than others.

The EU’s favorite Israeli politicians tend to be “liberals,” who succeed in camouflaging their approval for land theft with rhetoric about a “two-state solution.”

By taking that approach, Tzipi Livni and the late Shimon Peres could strike up a warmer rapport with EU representatives than more brazen hawks like Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.

Ironically, EIPA does not actually play by the rules of the game.

EIPA spends much of its time engaging with members of the European Parliament. Its strongest supporters belong to that fringe within the parliament that is prepared to either defend all of Israel’s settlement activities or seek to downplay their significance.

Bas Belder, a veteran lawmaker from the Netherlands, sits on EIPA’s advisory committee. Belder is an unapologetic Christian Zionist.

On a TV program earlier this year, he argued that it was unfair that Israel gets criticized when there are “settlements for so-called Bedouins” in Area C that are “quite clearly against international law.”

That reasoning was absurd. Bedouins are not building settlements; they are struggling to survive.

In a fresh act of belligerence, the Israeli military issued 40 demolition orders to Bedouins living in Khan al-Ahmar village on Sunday. Unlike the neighboring Maaleh Adumim – Israel’s largest settlement in Area C – that Bedouin village lacks any infrastructure.

Gung ho

Another politician on EIPA’s advisory board is Fulvio Martusciello, a stalwart of Forza Italia – the party synonymous with former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Martusciello is also chair of the European Parliament’s committee for relations with the Knesset. That committee – delegation in official parlance – has displayed a considerable degree of sympathy towards the settler movement, as well as to firms that operate in the settlements.

Earlier this month, it hosted a visit to Brussels by Sydney Knafou, CEO of Casimex, a French company that imports wines from Israeli settlements in the West Bank and Golan Heights.

Casimex labels produce from those settlements as “wine of Israel.” That is a flagrant violation of EU law, which prohibits firms from misleading consumers by suggesting that food or drink are from present-day Israel if they originate from the West Bank or Golan.

Furthermore, EIPA has appeared happy to cooperate with other lobby outfits that are gung ho in the manner with which they endorse Israel’s settlement activities.

In January, EIPA played a lead role in organizing a conference aimed at smearing the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement as anti-Semitic – an aspersion that Israel casts against its critics by default. That event was also sponsored by Israel’s EU embassy and European Coalition for Israel.

European Coalition for Israel is a Christian Zionist group. Its legal counsel, Andrew Tucker, has made one of the most outlandish comments yet recorded about Palestine. He has called Israel’s occupation of the West Bank “the key to peace and prosperity in the Middle East.”

This week EIPA disclosed details of its annual budget for the first time. A statement it provided to the EU’s “transparency register” suggests that it had $370,000 at its disposal in 2015, the year it was established.

Menachem Margolin is now listed as the organization’s treasurer. He also heads the European Jewish Association, which has a stated yearly budget of around $1.7 million.

EIPA’s money – all from unnamed donors – enables it to have an office opposite the Justus Lipsius building, where European Union summits are held.

The lobby group’s efforts to combine proximity to power with deception should not go unchallenged.

Alex Benjamin is posing as someone moderate and reasonable. In truth, he is entangled with extremists.

•First published by The Electronic Intifada, 22 February 2017.