EDTIOR'S NOTE: David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee (AJC), is a frequent contributor to Der Tagesspiegel, one of Germany's leading newspapers. It asked him to write about the contrasting reactions in the United States and Europe to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's visit to Washington. Harris says that AJC, including the organization's office in Berlin, has grown increasingly concerned about Europe's general drift away from understanding Israel's yearning for peace and profound security dilemmas.
By David Harris
Six days of high-profile Middle East drama have just ended in Washington. Framed by President Obama's speech on the region, on May 19, at the State Department and Prime Minister Netanyahu's remarks to Congress on May 24, observers were taking careful note of words, temperature and body language in the complex interplay between the two leaders.
But the overarching story remains the same as always: The United States and Israel have forged a unique relationship, supported by the overwhelming majority of Americans. Whatever the occasional differences in policy, normal even for the closest of friends as we have seen between Washington and Berlin, the key point is what unites, not divides, the two countries. The rousing ovation by the Congress for the prime minister said it all – shared values, outlook and threats.
Some observers in Europe see it differently. They scratch their heads when Democrats and Republicans alike give repeated standing ovations to an Israeli prime minister they view with suspicion. They despair that Israel, in their eyes the main obstacle to "perpetual peace" in the region, is lauded for its pursuit of peace and right to defend itself in the Congress. And they offer theories of "Jewish power" in a vain attempt to explain America's identification with the Jewish state.
Those observers are missing the bigger story. America does not support Israel just because of American Jews, who comprise only two percent of the population. Rather, it is because Americans of many backgrounds identify with Israel as a liberal, democratic society in a sea of tyrannies; understand Israel's struggle, from day one, to defend the Jewish people's right to self-determination in a tough neighborhood; and grasp that Israel seeks peace and a two-state solution, but its main problem today is the absence of peace-seeking partners.
But then again some of those observers missed earlier stories.
They believed in Yasser Arafat long after it became clear that he was a corrupt, duplicitous leader.
They refused to see the change in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, whom they despised, when he came to power in 2001 and that later led him to withdraw Israel from Gaza.
They insist that the core of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is settlements, thus putting the entire onus on Israel, when, in reality, the crux has always been the right of the Jewish people to a state of their own.
And they won't give Prime Minister Netanyahu the benefit of the doubt, though it will take someone with his credentials to persuade Israel to take risky steps for peace, if peace is possible.
Meanwhile, Americans see a country, Israel, seeking peace and, with committed partners, as in the case of Egypt and Jordan, ready to pay the territorial price. They also see a country faced with existential threats to which there are no easy answers, no alluring "soft-power solutions." Hamas seeks Israel's elimination. Its charter makes that amply clear. So does Hezbollah. So does Iran. And the Palestinian Authority sends mixed messages – peace one day, glorification of terrorists the next; compromise one day, reconciliation with Hamas the next.
On June 1st, Israel will mark ten years since a terrorist attack on a Tel Aviv discotheque. Twenty-one Israeli youngsters were killed. Joschka Fischer, then Germany's foreign minister, happened to be near the scene. He rushed over and saw the carnage. He understood what Israel faces when suicide bombers want to kill Israelis anywhere, anytime.
No country desires peace more than Israel. No other country faces calls for its destruction from another UN member state. No other country has its right to defend itself so microscopically challenged.
If any part of the world should understand Israel and its journey, it is Europe. If any part of the world should understand the Jewish people's vulnerability, it is Europe. And if any part of the word should understand the need to support liberal, democratic societies as a foundation for peace, it is Europe.