Israeli PM's Europe trip overshadowed by "blood libel" claim 2009-08-25 05:44:54   Print

    by David Harris

    JERUSALEM, Aug. 24 (Xinhua) -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday kicked off a four-day visit to Europe to push Israel's cases regarding the Palestinians and Iran. However, the publication of a highly controversial article in a Swedish newspaper on the eve of his departure has put a very different spin on the trip.

    The tabloid Aftonbladet published a story last Monday accusing Israeli soldiers of removing body parts from Palestinians who were killed in combat.

    Unusually united, Israeli spokespeople, politicians and academics dismissed the allegation as preposterous, with the government demanding a condemnation from the Swedish government for what they are terming a "blood libel."

    Thus far Sweden has refused to condemn the article or its author Donald Bostrom, arguing that freedom of press is a basic principle in the country.

    The affair is particularly sensitive as Stockholm currently holds the rotating presidency of the European Union and its Foreign Minister Carl Bildt is slated to visit Israel next month.

    "The media in Sweden isn't anti-Semitic," according to Freddy Eytan, an Israeli career diplomat, who served for many years in Europe.

    The Swedes have simply bought the Palestinian narrative completely, he added.

    However, relations between the two countries were not always like this, recalled Swedish investigative journalist Ola Karlsson, who is currently working in Israel.

    "If you were to ask a Swede in their 40s or 50s, then the likelihood is that they or someone they know have volunteered on an Israeli kibbutz," Karlsson said on Monday.

    He said that as time passed and Sweden became more socialist, particularly in the 1980s, it adopted an obviously more pro-Palestinian stance, with local media appearing more anti-Israeli, adding that there has been a large influx of Arabs to Sweden, which has also seemingly played a role.

    Shmuel Bar, director of studies at the Institute for Policy and Strategy of the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, Israel, noted that Sweden is not alone in being affected by its growing Muslim population.

    "Israeli-European relations today are highly influenced by European fears about the reactions of Muslims living in their countries," Bar said.

    On the diplomatic front, there is no allegation in Israel of anti-Semitism on the part of Sweden and other European states or their adoption of a deliberately anti-Israeli stance.

    Europe has repeatedly made it clear that it supports the peace process between the Jewish state and the Palestinians, which the United States, Israel's most important ally, has vowed to help revive.

    Perhaps the noticeable difference between Europe and Washington is the language adopted in criticizing Israel when the latter does something which the international community disapproves of. The United States may use a word such as "unhelpful," while Brussels will be far more forthright.

    In the first week of August, for example, the European presidency issued a strongly-worded condemnation of the Israeli eviction of two Arab families in Jerusalem:

    "The Presidency of the European Union reiterates its serious concern about the continued and unacceptable evictions... These actions confirm a worrying trend that runs counter to the creation of an atmosphere conducive to achieving a viable and credible solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians,"

    Despite this type of rhetoric, Bar argued that Netanyahu's visit to Europe is unlikely to have any influence at all on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

    "It's very clear that Israeli-European relations are not good...But Europe doesn't really play a role in the peace process, and in any case there isn't a peace process right now," Bar said.

    Bar believed that while the focus of the trip may has originally been Iran, Netanyahu will now be trying to warn Europe not to become complacent about anti-Semitism.

    Netanyahu is scheduled to visit Britain and Germany, both of which are relatively sympathetic to Israel's Middle Eastern narrative, as compared to many other European countries. Germany, in particular, is likely to be supportive of Netanyahu's message regarding anti-Semitism.

    The visit and the broader issues of the Palestinians and Iran are of particular importance right now. Next month, world leaders will assemble for the annual opening of the General Assembly of the United Nations, and the United States is hoping for progress on both of these issues by the commencement of the gathering.

    U.S. President Barack Obama is hoping that by then there will be international consensus on the way forward with Iran. Washington has given Tehran until September to respond to its invitation to join negotiations. Should the Islamic republic say no, it would likely face further international isolation.

    At the same time, the president hopes that his special Middle East envoy George Mitchell will be able to reach agreement with the Israelis over a freeze of settlement activity. The Palestinians have made this a precondition to returning to the negotiating table.

    Netanyahu is expected to meet Mitchell in London on Wednesday. While both sides are trying to play down expectations from this particular session, the media is filled with speculations that an agreement on the issue is at hand.

    The Europeans have made clear their backing for the Palestinian and American demand for an immediate cessation of Israeli construction work in the West Bank. Israel is allegedly ready to offer a six-month building moratorium, while some Israeli reports suggest that the United States is looking for a two-year commitment.

    However, both in Israel and in Europe, public opinion is far more vocal in expressing mistrust. Israelis freely speak of their generalized belief that Europeans are anti-Semitic and pro-Palestinian, while many Europeans strongly condemn Israeli policies towards the Palestinians.

    Much of this sentiment is fanned by the media, according to Eytan, saying that the current "blood libel" story as it is being dubbed in Israel was published by a sensationalist paper looking to sell copies.

    While papers can print what they want in free countries, they have a responsibility to publish the truth, said Eytan, adding that this standard must also be applied in Israel.

    "We can't tell them to stop, but they must show sensitivity," said Eytan, who believed there must be a clear distinction between "mercantile" journalism and quiet diplomacy between states.

Editor: Yan
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