On a recent visit to the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres unsurprisingly put the blame for the violence and the stalled peace process firmly at the door of the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat. ” If Arafat doesn’t bring an end to terrorism, terrorism will bring an end to him”, he warned after meeting EU foreign policy chief Javier
Solana. If the tone was not that conciliatory with the PA chairman, still blocked in his headquarters of Ramallah, the toughness was likely deliberate. Notwithstanding the fact that
Peres is actually working as the “spokesperson” of Sharon, we have to remember that he is undergoing almost the same pressure from the Belgian judiciary system, for his role in the collective death of more than a hundred peasants in Kafr Kana, in Lebanon, when he was
Prime Minister. Another reason for his bitterness consists in the fact that a man, who is qualified by numerous observers, as the émounting star” of the Israeli Labor Party, has bypassed him on his left. This man is Abraham Burg. If Peres resents his ascension, and particularly his recent attempts of dialogue with the Palestinian parliament, it is because he risks not only to divide the current governmental coalition, but also to put in jeopardy the future of the Labor Party.
More than an issue is linked to these facts. Burg’s challenge to Sharon, and indirectly to his own party é which is still member of the government- is perhaps the least important, because anyway he will be fired as speaker of the Knesset, at the very moment he will put a foot on the ground of the Palestinian parliament. The Israeli Prime Minister made it quite clear: ” There has been a coalition decision banning this meeting”, he declared to the Israeli radio. ” As a member of the coalition and, obviously, as speaker of the Knesset, Mr. Burg should respect this decision”. But Burg, in visit to Paris with his Palestinian counterpart Ahmed Qorei, was adamant: ” I’m going to Ramallah even if it risks setting in motion a procedure to kick me out of my Knesset job”.
Naturally, it is not the French who will discourage him of getting through with such a performance. Quite the contrary, they were pretty glad to have him in Paris along with Qorei, where both men were received by the officials and held numerous meetings with the French lawmakers and the journalists. But while people in France consider such meetings as ” a reason for hope”, some others in Israel may not appreciate.
Let’s remember that the Palestinian broadcasting house that Israel has recently destroyed was actually a French gift for the PA. In this context, Shimon Peres was expected to give some explanations in Strasbourg about what happened. A little time before he arrived, Mr. Chris Patten, the EU foreign affairs commissioner said he was ” shocked and astounded at what is happening”, adding: ” We ask whether it really contributes to security if everything we try to support with EU assistance is destroyed”.
The aforementioned declaration of Peres, suggests however that the European Union was just supporting a “bunch of terrorists” with Arafat at their head! Was it that the message Peres was carrying to Strasbourg?
Beyond the rhetoric, there are the facts: Israel has destroyed more than é 17m of European Union- funded property in Palestine. According to the list compiled by EU member states and the European Commission, the most costly destruction was at Gaza international airport, which suffered an estimated é 9.3m of damage. The Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation in Ramallah was wrecked, with é 3.3m of damage. Other damage included a schools construction scheme funded by the commission (é 23,000), and a Belgian-sponsored irrigation project (é11,000). The European Commission and the EU member states are the authority’s main donors; the European Community alone spent é467m in supporting the Palestinians between 1999 and 2001.
Now to come up to Strasbourg just to say to the Europeans that they are actually giving their money to the terrorists in Palestine, – as Mr. Peres suggested é is a little big and hard to swallow up as a pill! Indubitably, the Israeli foreign minister was trying to gain time and escape with a quibble the thorny discussion he was expecting. A French spokesman for the Quai d’Orsay has declared that the question of asking Israel for reparation is currently being debated in the European bodies. The foreign ministers of the fifteen will be discussing it at the General Affairs Council on Monday, January 28.
So, today’s problem in Europe concerns that serious matter: will Israel be asked for compensation? In throwing the responsibility of Tsahal behavior on Arafat, Sharon an Peres may perhaps convince the paranoiac hardliners among their compatriots, but as regards the European leaders, they should perhaps find something else, more solid.
These are hard times for the Israeli governmental coalition, as it sounds. Maybe is it the first time in the entire history of Israel that two of its leaders, while still in power, are sued in Europe for war crimes. And this is not the least of their troubles. With France for instance, the irritation has reached an unprecedented level.
In last December, French authorities put three of Israel’s five leading banks under investigation as part of a broader, ongoing probe of a money-laundering network between France and Israel. It seems that the network used Jewish charitable and cultural institutions in France to process é illegally-acquired money.”
The late expression is enough broad to include any and every activity, from drug dealing to weapons smuggling and mafia-like business, although the French authorities remain very cautious and discreet about the case. An executive from Bank Leumi France SA is among those under investigation, alongside workers from Israel Discount Bank and the First International Bank of Israel, according to some reports. In November, it was said there were some 80 suspects in the case including six rabbis. Six people are reportedly already in jail.
Some media reported that both Israel Discount Bank and First International Bank of Israel are also under investigation regarding their possible involvement in money laundering since 1996. The French branch of Barclays, the Société Générale SA, and the Société Marseillaise de Crédit appear also on the list of the investigators.
The situation worsened when the Israeli government stepped into the fray of Jewish politics in France last days. Following the firebombing of a Jewish school in the Paris suburb of Créteil in the early hours of the New Year, Michael Melchior é Israel’s deputy foreign minister- sharply denounced the French authorities and French society for “tolerating such violence”. At the same time, the Israeli government issued a communiqué stating that, in light of ” the wave of anti-Semitism in France”, French Jews immigrating to Israel would receive the best aid package offered by the Israeli state.
Let’s notice by the way that this aid status is also granted to immigrants from Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union. It was also recently granted to Jews emigrating from Argentina and South Africa. The aid allocation is intended to allow newly arrived immigrants to live for seven months without having to spend any of their personal savings. The sum ranges from about $4,500 for a student to $13.000 for a family with two children under age 4. The communiqué justified Israel’s decision by stating that 40 percent of France’s 600.000 Jews live surrounded by Muslim hostility.
Needless to say that the gesture was ill appreciated in France even by the Jews themselves. Thus, Jean Kahn, an important figure of the Jewish lobby in France, depicted Melchior’s statements as ” a bit over the top”. The president of the CRIF- the umbrella group of French Jewish organizations- Roger Cukierman said: ” the traditional anti-Semitism of the extreme right is not as serious in France. The anti-Jewish acts committed in the last year here are very clearly localized in communities where Jews and Maghrebins live side by side”.
But for whoever knows something about the history of those French Jews, it is clear that in their majority they are é like the Arabs- immigrant from the ex-colonies of North Africa. A lot of them came to France in the wake of the 1967 war, when they felt somewhat threatened in their original countries. Yet, while settling in France, they could neither forget their customs nor their former Arab neighbors. Thus, a large amount of their business is still connected to the countries of the Maghreb. Many of them are still living with Arab neighbors in the French cities, and it is quite unthinkable to allow the build up of Jewish ghettos in a society very intent on the integration and the assimilation of the immigrants of the different races.
That is why the Israeli communiqué seemed so out of touch with the reality of France’s communities.
Hichem Karoui is a writer and journalist living in Paris, France.