Trying to Fit in, but Where?

Where should Israel try to “fit in” – in Europe, or in the Middle East, where it is situated? At the convention held two weeks ago at the Multidisciplinary Center in Herzliya, European ministers spoke about the right of Israel and Arab states to integrate into a “broader Europe.” This is a concept that has begun to form along with the expansion of the European Union to 25 countries with some of them – notably Cyprus – right on the edge of our region. Some speakers noted that the time is right for such an integration. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer said higher jobless rates among young people in the Arab states is causing the development of a new consciousness leading to modern thinking and possibly to a political solution.

Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, said an agreement between Europe and Israel must not be contingent on political preconditions. Italian Minister for European Affairs, Rocco Buttiglione, and European Commission member Frits Bolkestein spoke in the same vein. A different opinion was expressed by French President Jacques Chirac in an interview with the Yedioth Aharonoth’s Shimon Shiffer. Chirac said Israel has to “become integrated in the region” in order to be able to live in peace with her neighbors. If Chirac’s intention is that Israel should become acquainted with the Arab-Muslim world, that her Jewish citizens should know Arabic – he is certainly correct. If, however, his intention is that Israel should integrate into the Arab-Muslim Middle East from a values perspective also, then this contradicts what was said by the European ministers who spoke in Herzliya.

Broader Europe champions values that are in direct contradiction with the values of that same world which, according to Chirac, is the one into which Israel should integrate. Take the status of women, for example – Israel would never be able to ~. accept the inferior status of women that is common in the surrounding countries, and in the framework of a broader Europe it would certainly be required to make a commitment to full equality for women, including its women Arab citizens. France herself can attest to the intensity of the contradiction between the demands Israel can expect from Europe and the reality in our region – France has enacted far-reaching laws forbidding the wearing of religious symbols, including the Muslim head covering, at schools. (In Israel incidentally, the Supreme Court recognized such a prohibition only for private Christian schools).

A member of the Dutch parliament who is currently struggling for equal rights and against the custom of female circumcision now needs a bodyguard due to the threats she received. In which world should Israel integrate? That of the parliament member or that of those who are threatening her? One of the accusations leveled at Israel is that due to the western lifestyle prevalent here, Israel is disseminating sexually promiscuous behavior that affronts Islamic values. Does the demand for Israel to “integrate into the region” include Israel’s abandonment of the European concept, already accepted in Israel, regarding individual autonomy and the right to choose one’s sexual lifestyle, up to and including a sex change? The idea for normative integration in our region therefore contradicts the fundamental demands of broader Europe. What kind of integration can we discuss? The one mentioned by the ministers in Herzliya is integration via Europe. Europe has a special role that the United States cannot fulfill, of smoothing differences in the Middle East, in both the economic and ethical senses. While Israel could not achieve security and end the conflict without the U.s., without Europe the huge gaps between Israel and her neighbors will not be narrowed. Europe, by offering the incentive of integration into it, can promote modernization in the Arab world – Israel and the u.s. are too hated there – both in the economic sphere and regarding the principles of personal freedom.

We have seen how membership in the European Union is changing traditional societies, such as Greece and Portugal, which are not wealthy. We are seeing how the incentive of entry to Europe may bring peace to divided Cyprus. Only via a similar process will it perhaps be possible to bring true peace to the Middle East, or to part of it. Only thus, and not via integration in lagging societies, will we be able to follow the French president’s advice.

The writer is dean of the Radzyner School of Law at The Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.

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