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Seventh International Sabeel Conference

Jerusalem, 19 November 2008

Speech Andreas van Agt

This is the closing day of your weeklong conference. To my profound regret I could not possibly participate in this conference in the previous six or seven days. I am happy, though, to bear witness today to my commitment to the Palestinian cause and to express my solidarity with the Palestinian people living under a seemingly unending oppression and duress, at times on the brink of despair.

“We would welcome a talk on the hope and cost of struggling against injustice”, your Director told me in his invitation letter. Is there much hope within sight when one scouts the foreseeable future? Let us, first of all, engage in a brief search for encouraging developments in the outside world.

What comes to mind immediately is, of course, the election of a new President in the US. Barack Obama’s victory has aroused excitement far beyond his home country, yes indeed in the entire world. Will the new man at the helm of the world’s most powerful state brighten the prospects for a just peace in the Middle East region? Things cannot conceivably get worse than they have become under the Bush jr. presidency, to say the least. But will his successor put American policy on a basically different track? In the run-up to the elections Mr. Obama has been making statements on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as on Iran’s effort to equip itself with nuclear weaponry. On Iran, the new president-elect took a stand not only against that country’s nuclear aspirations but also against Iran’s connections with the so-called terrorist organizations Hezbollah and Hamas.

As far as the Israel/Palestine problem is concerned Mr. Obama, in his address to the dominant lobby organisation AIPAC, jockeyed with his rival McCain for high marks by that audience. He went, inter alia, as far as stating that all of Jerusalem should remain under Israel’s sovereignty. Apparently, he never took note of, or he did not care about the famous report the EU member states representatives in Tel Aviv and Ramallah have produced three years ago. In that report these diplomats unanimously concluded that without East Jerusalem no Palestinian state would ever be viable. By the way, you may know what happened to this report: startled by the pithy conclusions it presented, the author’s chiefs, the EU foreign ministers, fumbled it forthwith into a drawer. Fortunately, it was then leaked to and published in the British daily The Guardian.

Furthermore, some people feel worried about the new President’s very first appointment. He chose Congressman Rahm Israel Emanuel for the top post of Chief of Staff. The American Jewish community welcomes this choice, Ha’aretz reported about a fortnight ago.

All the same, let us not indulge in gloom. Barack Obama is gifted with an open and inquisitive mind, his personal history makes him, of necessity, perceive the world out of America in a more receptive and less biased way. Let us hope that he will have the guts to start taking ground-breaking decisions in the domain of foreign policy already in the first term, such as promoting reunification in divided Palestine and exerting due pressure on the occupier.

What about Europe? As to its stance with respect to the conflict, I feel deeply disappointed. Back in 1980 the Heads of State and Government of the EU issued their latest Declaration (in Venice) pronouncing that all the territories conquered in 1967 ought to be returned to the Palestinians and that the construction of settlements there constitutes a violation of international law.

Ever since, the EU has broadened and deepened its relations with Israel. The EU-Israel Association Agreement came into being in 2002. It grants substantial privileges to Israel on the vast European market with its great purchasing power. According to that agreement, the application can be put on ice in the event of human rights being seriously violated. That article has never been activated. On the contrary, this summer the EU and its member states presented Israel on its 60th birthday with a special gift: Europe pledged to intensify and diversify the existing relations without attaching any political condition to that pledge.

Why are the Europeans so lenient and permissive towards Israel? There are several factors at play here:

- Public opinion is badly informed, to begin with. Most of the information about Israel/Palestine people have been supplied with, was warped or at least biased, due to the opulence of stories and images coming from the professionally superb information services of Israel and the lack of countervailing information from the Palestinian side.

- Moreover, many viewers, listeners and readers in Europe (and even more so in America) are hardly receptive to information that does not fit in with their prejudices. There is much unwillingness to take in information that contradicts preconceived ideas that are rooted in people’s minds.

- Israel is still viewed by many as the land of the survivors of the Holocaust. This unspeakable horror occurred in Europe, with the Nazi-regime in Germany at its centre, but research done in other European countries has revealed a lot about negligence to put up resistance that could have reduced the number of Jewish victims. Therefore shame has come to shape people’s mindset, and in its wake the drive to compensate for previous failure and to refrain from criticising the Jewish state.

- Then there is the Holy Scripture, most notably the Old Testament with its misconstrued notions of God’s Chosen People and the Promised Land. Too many Christians in Europe read into these words a special licence for Israel to take possession of the now occupied territories and to retain them.

- Another matter is Europe’s propensity to orient itself on the US. That is a mental legacy of the Cold War and of our alliance with them in NATO. Yes indeed, President Bush’s authority has plummeted over the last eight years. But on the other hand the assaults perpetrated by Al-Qaida in European cities after 9/11 fed and fuelled the fallacy that Muslims are all potential terrorists. As Palestinians are widely viewed as Muslims, all Muslims, for all too many in Europe Palestinians are just terrorists. Mr. Sharon has been quite successful in misrepresenting Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians as part and parcel of the “war against terror”. I need not elaborate here on the enormous damage done to the Palestinian cause in the world by the suicide bombings.

I just mentioned with sadness the lack of awareness in Europe of there being a Christian minority in Palestine (and Israel). When the subject is raised, Europeans readily assume that Palestinians try to take refuge in other parts of the world because living together with Muslims is getting all too cumbersome. Of course, I know there are quite a few Muslims who engage in making life for their Christian brothers miserable. Without excusing that bad conduct I time and again do my best to make my audiences understand that our fellow-Christians are highly responsible for much of the hate among Muslims. For is it not the “God bless America” country, in its public appearances the most Christian nation on the globe, that keeps lending immeasurable support to occupying Israel? And is Europe, in spite of its thorough secularisation, still not perceived as a bulwark of Christianity? Well, Europe keeps failing to rise to its feet in defence of the fundamental rights of the Palestinians.

Admittedly, the Europeans are the biggest donors for the Palestinians. But that is administering anodyne without addressing the causes of pain. However well-intentioned, these aid programmes result in relieving the occupying force of the burden of taking care of the wellbeing of the people under occupation, as the Red Cross Treaties of 1949 dictate it to do.

The Palestinians keep suffering beyond description. Is there a better future in the offing? Is there a glimmer of light at the end of the tunnel? In the short term, I pin my hopes mainly on the next US President. Though he can’t do miracles, he has both the ingenuity and the character to break deadlocks. Needless to add in this context that an inter-Palestinian reunification would be most helpful. I noted, by the way, Hamas-leader Haniyeh reiterated the other day (Saturday, 8 November) in a meeting with European parliamentarians that his government is willing to accept a Palestinian state alongside Israel within the 1967 borders. Members of the Arab League would be well-advised now to bring this matter again to the table of the UN Security Council urging Israel to accept this position as well, in conformity with the Council’s binding resolutions 242 and 338. It would be great if powerful world leaders like the presidents or prime ministers of India and Brasil and still revered icons like Nelson Mandela and Martthi Athisaari from Finland would raise their voices in support of this initiative, together with Saudi Arabia which was the driving force behind the Arab League’s proposals launched in 2002 and 2007.

The Europeans would then follow suit, even more so if Gordon Brown would publicly lend his support as well. After the indisputable failure of the Annapolis enterprise a next and bolder initiative is badly needed. And so is a revitalisation of the crippled and discouraged Israeli peace movement.