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Hey Paris: We told you so

Israel hopes that the attacks in Paris will convince Europeans that they share a common fate. It might be proven wrong

There is an old saying in Hebrew: “A trouble shared is a trouble halved.” Besides the shock from the two deadly terrorist attacks in Paris, this feeling was pretty much dominant in the Israeli public and press in the last 72 hours. We, Israelis, have suffered long enough from Muslim terrorism - now it's Europe’s turn to suffer as well, goes this line of thinking. Now they, Europeans, will understand us better.

Eitan Haber, a leading columnist in Israel's most popular newspaper Yediot Ahronot and a one-time close adviser to prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, put this equation quite bluntly. "Now everyone will ask everyone else what to do and won't find the answer," he wrote on Thursday after the attack on Charlie Hebdo offices. "Yet the answer is known to all: it's either us, Europeans, Israelis and all lovers of freedom and democracy or them, the Muslims."

Haber's words reflect the deep ambivalence in Israel towards Europe. On the one hand, on a political level, Europe is viewed in Israel with suspicion or even with disgust. On the other hand, there is an eagerness to be part of Europe and its civilised world.

In contrast with Israel's biggest and constant ally, the US, Europe is perceived as anti-Israeli because it does not understand " Israel's constraints" in the war on terrorism, preferring a sterile “human rights discourse" on Israel's right to self-defence.

Relations with France are even more complicated. From the Suez war in 1956, a joint Israeli-French (and British) operation to topple the Nasserite regime in Egypt, until the 1967 war, France was Israel's staunchest ally in the West by supplying it with weapons and building its nuclear facility in Dimona. But then, in an effort to deter Israel from opening a war in June 1967, France declared a weapons embargo on Israel. This move was viewed in Israel as an unforgivable betrayal.

France was the first Western country to recognise the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) back in 1975 and host a Palestinian embassy in Paris at a time when this organisation was considered in Israel as a pure terrorist group that was aiming at its destruction. Since then France has considerably changed its policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the negative impressions are still imprinted in the Israeli collective mind.

The fact that France hosts the biggest Jewish community in Western Europe with 480,000 members makes things even more difficult. It is true that many of them are integrated fully into French society, but the memory of the Vichy government that cooperated with the Nazi regime in the Second World War in persecuting the Jews has not vanished.

Mixed - or rather mixed up - with its political stance towards Israel, no wonder that many Israelis regard France almost as an enemy.

Since the beginning of the second intifada in 2000, tensions between the Muslim and Jewish communities in France have risen. The Jewish community has become more and more identified with Israel, where many of them have close relatives, while many Muslims showed solidarity with their Palestinian brothers. Reported attacks on Jews and Jewish institutions have intensified, and many have attributed them to elements within the Muslim community.

These tensions are reflected in the rising Jewish emigration from France to Israel. In 2014 6,600 French Jews chose to move to Israel compared to 1900 Jews just two years earlier in 2012. Even before the bloody events which took place in Paris, the Israeli press was full of horror stories about the fate of Jews in France, allegedly under constant threat from "Islamic extremism". 

Islamophobic discourse - so high on the agenda of right-wing parties in France, Holland, Sweden and elsewhere in Europe - was easily adopted in Israel where Islam had already been portrayed as the main danger to the Jewish state's existence, either from Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas or lately from the Islamic State (IS).

All this helped Israelis develop a picture of France, and Europe in general, as a continent that was under Muslim attack, about to fall into jihadist hands. The latest novel by the French writer Michel Houellebecq, Soumission (Submission), might as well have been written by an Israeli writer: it imagines a future in which an Islamic party takes over France.

Yet at the same time, with all their suspicions and fears from an allegedly hostile, anti-Semitic and increasingly Muslim Europe, Israelis prefer to see themselves as part of this old continent, as the true bearers of western civilisation in the Middle East. When Haber is equating "Israelis, Europeans and lovers of freedom and democracy", he is striking a deep chord in Israeli public opinion.

It cannot be denied that there was an amount of not so hidden satisfaction in Israel after the attacks in Paris, an attitude which could be summarised as “we told you so”. The attack on Charlie Hebdo offices - even more than the attack on the kosher grocery, which was seen as a "classical" act of anti-Semitism - is conceived by many in Israel as a confirmation of what  they, Israelis, already "know" about Europe, but that Europeans themselves "failed" to understand because of their stubborn commitment to a pluralist society.

On the political level, this line of thinking leads many Israeli leaders to believe that they can use these events to forge a newfound fraternity between Israel and Europe in the face of the threat from jihadist terrorism. Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon were quick to offer their help in order "to defeat Islamic terrorism … which threatens to spread all over Europe and the free world."

But Israel has more in mind than just a common fight against terror. Daniel Shek, ex-Israeli ambassador to France, says that a good degree of cooperation between Israeli and French secret services already exists and is bound to increase after the recent attacks. Yet this is not enough. Israel hopes that this "shared fate" will turn France and Europe in general to take a more favourable and understanding position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and will stop the European rush to recognise a Palestinian state, for example.

Ex-ambassador Shek is familiar with this line of argument. Israeli officials, he says, tried using it before. The result, according to Shek, was not very positive from the Israeli point of view. Such talk about Israel and Europe being in the same boat, he warns, might create a backlash. Instead of adopting the Israeli position, Europeans may distance themselves further from Israel in order to prevent the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from spilling over even more into Europe.

"In Israel there is a growing caricaturisation of Islam in Europe, as if Europe is going to be Muslim, as if the Muslims are going to conquer Europe," says Shek. But from his experience, European officials are not very happy to hear their Israeli counterparts use this Islamophobic language. They reject this kind of talk and defend Europe as a pluralistic society, he adds. In short, Israel is not playing the right chords.

It is too early to say what impact the attacks on the Charlie Hebdo offices and on the kosher grocery in Paris might have on French and European politics. It may certainly increase Islamophobia and make the lives of Muslims in Europe much more difficult.

But there is no assurance that it will create a new brotherhood between Europe and Israel as many in Israel hope. It might even make Europe less patient towards the continuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, seen as one of the main reasons for instability spreading from the Middle East onto the streets of Europe. 

- Meron Rapoport is an Israeli journalist and writer, winner of the Napoli International Prize for Journalism for a inquiry about the stealing of olive trees from their Palestinian owners. He is ex-head of the News Department in Haaertz, and now an independent journalist.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Eye.

Photo: People hold their phones showing placards which translate as "I am Charlie" in solidarity with French newspaper Charlie Hebdo at the "Maison de France" in Tel Aviv 8 January (AFP)