29 Nov 2010

An American Jewish lobby at the European Union

Last Thursday a gala evening was held to celebrate the opening of the Transatlantic Institute, a Jewish research institute whose declared aim is no less than strengthening the ties between the United States and the countries of the European Union (the undeclared aim is to serve as a lobby).

By Amiram Barkat for Haaretz.com

David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee (left), with Javier Solana at the opening of the Transatlantic Institute.

BRUSSELS - Last Thursday a gala evening was held to celebrate the opening of the Transatlantic Institute, a Jewish research institute whose declared aim is no less than strengthening the ties between the United States and the countries of the European Union (the undeclared aim is to serve as a lobby).

After a formal dinner, there were speeches by the European Union's Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, Javier Solana, and by Spanish Foreign Minister Ana Palacio. Both of them showered compliments on the heads of the body that established the institute, the American Jewish Committee, and heaped praise on the importance of good relations.

The person who insisted on spoiling the conciliatory and relaxed atmosphere was in fact the United States Ambassador to the European Union, Rockwell Schnabel, who told the guests that to the best of his understanding, the problem of anti-Semitism has reached the point where it was in the 1930s. Later, in the wake of the tempest caused by Schnabel's remarks, the ambassador's spokesman published a clarification, saying that the ambassador was relating to assessments by other bodies and was not expressing his own opinion or that of his government.

The American Jewish Committee is an organization that sees itself as fulfilling the function of American Jewry's "state department." The Transatlantic Institute in Brussels joins offices that it has opened during the past decade in Berlin, Warsaw and Geneva close to United Nations headquarters. "Brussels today is the capital of 18 countries and within three months will become the capital of 25 countries, with a population of 500 million," explains David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee. "We need to be there, just as we need to be at the United Nations."

Harris does not believe that the name of the institute or its declared aims suffer from any degree of pretentiousness. "The American Jewish Committee has always been in many ways the most universal of all Jewish organizations. In other words, we are a Jewish organization, but we have always defined our missions very broadly. We are an American and Jewish voice in Europe. If you take for example our position on NATO's expansion, we were saying that what's good for the democratic countries and for their security is also good for the Jews. If NATO expands, it's good for the kind of world in which Jews feel more secure."

The main question is how the prominent presence of an American Jewish organization in the heart of the EU will be perceived. The World Jewish Congress and B'nai B'rith have maintained offices to deal with their interests in Brussels for several years now but these offices are manned mostly by people from the WJC and B'nai B'rith in Europe. Other American organizations like the Anti-Defamation League considered opening offices in Brussels, but gave up the idea, in part for economic reasons: The cost of maintaining an office in Brussels comes to $2 million a year.

The concern that a permanent, high-profile presence would only reinforce the myth of the influence on the world of American Jewish power was considered by the founders but, says Harris, "I didn't lose any sleep over this."

And perhaps with justification. Ricardo Levy, diplomatic adviser to the European Commission President Romano Prodi, said that he is not worried that the institute will be perceived in the EU as an American Jewish lobby or as a source of special power. According to him, "We have so many institutes here, the opening of another institute will only add to the dialogue and the public debate."

American Jewish arrogance

Researchers of anti-Semitism like Henrik Bachner of Sweden see the resurgence of this myth, especially since the war in Iraq, as the most worrying anti-Semitic trend today in European society.

Harris: "There are some Jewish organizations who have thought about going in and creating, I quote a `lobby,' or trying to bring American political tactics, importing them to Brussels. In our judgment this may not be the most effective way to proceed. We have given a lot of thought to our own presence in Brussels, and we decided to open not an office but an institute, and we're calling it the Transatlantic Institute. The stated purpose of the institute is to contribute to the strengthening of relations between the United States and Europe."

The establishment of the institute raises another, intra-Jewish problem. After all, this is the home arena of European Judaism. People like Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice-chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, believe that a Jewish lobby in Brussels should be run by European Jews, and not by American Jews. "The message here for the European Jewish establishment is `you've failed in the fight against anti-Semitism,'" says Dr. Sharon Pardo, a researcher at the Center for European Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and at Ghent University in Belgium. Pardo notes the criticism that has been expressed by American Jewish organizations of European Jewry's official line regarding the governments of their countries, a line that in their opinion expresses "weakness."

"It is clear that there is arrogance here on the part of the American Jews toward the Europeans," says a former Israeli ambassador who served for many years in Europe. "Imagine what the Jews in America would think if a European Jewish organization were to open an office in Washington." However, a pan-European Jewish lobby does not seem to him to be a practical possibility at this time, as in his opinion, "The European Jewish organizations are squabbling with one another to such an extent that any initiative by one of them to create such a lobby would be thwarted by the others."

Harris says he would, in fact, be glad to see a European Jewish organization open offices in Washington: "Why not? If a European Jewish organization says, `We believe that the link between Europe and the United States is very important to the world and to democracy and we want to be a voice for that relationship in Washington,' that would be very important. If that group became involved solely in American domestic issues, then that would be different, more problematic of course."

Oded Eran, Israel's ambassador to the European Union, believes that the comparison between European Jewry and American Jewry "is not fair," in light of the huge advantages of the community in the United States with respect to its size and wealth. However, he thinks that the Jewish organizations in Europe would do well to unite in the end and set up a lobby. "On issues like the fight against anti-Semitism, a pan-European organization makes a lot of sense," he says. "It is possible, for example, to influence the EU Council of Education Ministers to decide on joint curricula against anti-Semitism or to influence the Council of Interior Ministers, who are responsible for the police, to formulate a uniform policy for the fight against anti-Semitic incidents."

Eran, who has also served in Washington, also believes that there is still a huge difference with respect to lobbying between the European and the American political cultures.

The capital of the bureaucrats

EU headquarters in Brussels consists of three different centers of power. The first is the European Parliament, which functions in Brussels for three weeks every month and every fourth week moves to Strasbourg, in France, where the plenum holds its sessions. The second is the councils of the various ministers, which meet once a month and set the EU's policy in their various areas of jurisdiction, and the third is the European Commission, the huge bureaucratic arm of the EU that is responsible for its everyday administration.

The European Parliament is considered the least significant element of the three, as most of the legislation is still done in the parliaments of the individual countries. The councils of ministers have importance, both formal and informal, in that the arena of face-to-face meetings that they provide for the ministers is used for creating a pan-European stance.

The European Commission has enormous power, especially with respect to economic issues: It controls, for example, the whole issue of trade among economic firms inside and outside the EU. Most of the foreign clients of the law firms and lobbyists in Brussels are international companies and economic organization that engage in trade with the EU.

"Brussels is the capital of Europe and its power grows day by day," says Maram Stern, the head of the World Jewish Congress office at the EU. The office is personally funded by Jewish multi-millionaire Edgar Bronfman, and Stern has headed it since it was opened nearly 20 years ago. If Washington is the city of publicly elected representatives, says Stern, Brussels is the capital of the bureaucrats, and the key to the success in lobbying activities there lies in understanding their mentality. "No one here cares too much about who sent him or who is funding him. In Washington you introduce yourself as a pro-Israel lobbyist and ask for 45 minutes with the senator in order to explain to him why he ought to support the Israeli interest. In Brussels you can't present things so directly. It has to come up at the end of a dinner and toward the end of the conversation and after you have offered your help to your interlocutor on a variety of other issues."

The Transatlantic Institute will deal with the variety of issues that are on the agenda of the American Jewish Committee. Not surprisingly, it is possible to find there the fight against anti-Semitism and Israel-Europe relations. With respect to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the heads of the Committee stick close to the official line disseminated by the government of Israel and its head. Harris expresses unreserved support for the claim that the fence has no diplomatic significance and he eagerly even defends its controversial route. "What we are saying is that it's simply a fact that there are Israeli communities on the east side of the Green Line (pre-Six Day War border) ... We focus on Gaza; we focus on some of the outposts, but to look at Ma'aleh Adumim or Ariel and say we are going to unilaterally dismantle? These are facts on the ground. They won't be settled until the negotiated settlement addresses their future. In the meantime their citizens deserve protection no less than anyone else."

It is hard to find buyers nowadays for these arguments in the EU, and Harris knows this very well. He admits that he often finds himself in conversations with the deaf when he comes to talk about Israel with Western European politicians. And perhaps he intentionally chooses to present his arguments in such a blunt way. Confronting European politicians, says the former ambassador, serves a definite internal interest of American Jewish organizations. According to him, "This story that anti-Semitism in Europe has gone back to the 1930s plays very well among American Jews. The donors dearly love for `their' organization to be in the forefront of the struggle."

Harris says that the attempt to please the donors in no way characterizes the American Jewish Committee. He really and truly believes in the importance of long-term dialogue with the Europeans. There is, he says, a big difference between what politicians in Western Europe say and what their colleagues in Eastern and Central Europe say, adding that there are important nuances even within Western Europe. He tells of a senior politician in an important Western European country who for years rejected what his organization had to say about anti-Semitism, but has suddenly become open to discussion of the issue. "I believe," he says, "that if one knows how to talk to people, if one combines patience with perseverance, sekhel [brains, common sense] with sensitivity - with that I've seen the ability to change minds."

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