Israel’s public relations in Europe are “miserable,” and the estrangement between Israel and the EU is both because Israeli politicians for whom Europe was the center of gravity are dying off, and because the Holocaust is receding into the “mist of history” for European politicians, Czech Foreign Minister Karl Schwarzenberg has told The Jerusalem Post.
Schwarzenberg, whose country is among the most supportive of Israel inside the EU, said there had been a significant shift in mood toward Israel in Europe over the last year, and “it would be nonsense to deny it.”
Schwarzenberg, who met on Monday with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, is on a two-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
“Whereas 10 or 20 years ago there was a vast majority of EU countries who were definitely for Israel, now we can really rely on two countries,” he said.
“A lot of countries are rather neutral, and some clearly have the other view.”
Schwarzenberg, sitting on the veranda of the King David Hotel in a jacket and signature bow-tie while puffing on a pipe, candidly named the Netherlands and Bulgaria as the two countries Israel could rely on.
“There are two countries who are now very supportive,” he said. “The Dutch, with their new foreign minister [Uri Rosenthal], and the Bulgarians.
The young [foreign] minister of Bulgaria [Nikolay Mladenov] is a very talented man, and he seems to be very active.”
Asked about other Central and Eastern European countries that recently joined the EU and were widely considered friendly, such as Hungary, Poland and Romania, Schwarzenberg said they were indeed pro-Israel, “but they are not so active.”
The Baltic states were supportive, but “not so much in the center of EU politics,” he said.
His own country’s voice on the Middle East, Schwarzenberg said, was heard inside the EU institutions, but was not always heeded.
Schwarzenberg responded in the affirmative when asked if the overall mood and attitude inside Europe toward Israel was something that should be a cause for worry in Jerusalem.
“I will tell you something honestly,” he said. “I think the PR of Israel in Europe during the last 10-12 years was miserable.
The public relations were really miserable.”
Saying that some of Israel’s military actions were “not really helpful” on this score, the Czech foreign minister bewailed the images coming out of the country.
“You must not forget that for the average European who is not involved in politics, who sits down with a beer and wine and looks at the news on the television, the pictures he gets from here are the war on Gaza,” he said.
“The normal man and woman who look at the television see a hi-tech, superbly armed army attacking overcrowded people living in not very good conditions. So of course the sympathy is with the people there. And, of course, they hear the news of houses pulled down – there is something here in the Old Town [the Shepherd Hotel in Sheikh Jarrah], or olive trees cut down – and this creates impressions.”
Particularly rough on European sensibilities was the West Bank security barrier, he said.
“For many Europeans, who remember the Iron Curtain and the Berlin Wall, this [the security barrier] brings back bad memories,” he said.
“The image of Israel nowadays is not a good one. A friend of Israel has to put it clearly: Your image isn’t good.”
Schwarzenberg, who was born in Prague in 1937 to a wealthy family in Bohemia before the German invasion of Czechoslovakia, and whose family fled to Austria after the communist takeover in 1948, said that Europeans were not swayed by Israel’s argument – that the barrier simply saves lives and is a security necessity.
“For a long time, the Berlin Wall was explained in the same way by the communist regime – to protect against the imperialist spies and devils,” he said. “It was explained in the same way.
So you see, it has limited credibility.”
Europeans, he said, “are not impressed by the danger that Israel is facing. They think that Israel is so strong, so superbly armed – a nuclear power – that they are not really endangered.”
Asked whether he himself understood the need for the barrier, the foreign minister said he did, but would probably have drawn it along a different route.
“I understand it, but I know it makes a terrible impression,” he said.
Despite highly critical voices of Israel in Europe, Schwarzenberg said that “nobody would want to see Israel vanish. It is a part of our culture, our work. Even the most critical of Israel see it as a partner.”
The Czech foreign minister said he felt that the dialogue between Israel and the EU was undeveloped, and placed part of the onus for this on Israel, which he said was naturally much more interested in the US.
Israel’s former leaders, he said, grew up in Europe and had a great understanding of the continent. By contrast, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu “spent a great deal of his life in the US.”
This, he said, was reflective of a generational change in Israel’s leadership that was leading to a degree of political estrangement.
“When the generation of politicians who grew up in Europe died out, it changed the whole situation. The sabras were not interested in Europe anymore,” he said.
And a similar type of situation is taking place among politicians in Europe, he said.
“World War II and the Holocaust is 65 years ago. Of all my colleagues in the EU, I am the last one who still saw a Yellow Star,” he said.
“The Holocaust, for those actively involved in politics [in Europe today], is as far away as the pre-World War I events.”
The fact that “everything slowly disappears in the mist of history was also playing an “enormous role” in changing the tenor of the Israeli-European relationship, Schwarzenberg said.