May 5, 2002

When Europeans and Americans Disagree


BERLIN — The discordance in European and American public views of events in the Middle East has grown ever more evident in recent weeks. And yet, because Europeans and Americans are strong allies and are committed to the same set of values, it cannot be that one party is completely right and the other completely wrong. Common sense suggests that we not explain our differences on this issue based on knee-jerk bias against the other side, even though clichés and prejudices have come to color most discussions of these differences.

Europeans ascribe America's practically unqualified support for Ariel Sharon's "war against terror" to cowboy worship or Rambo — when in doubt, shoot first, talk later. Europeans also frequently cite an American inclination to adopt a Manichean world view and simplistic solutions. Americans increasingly characterize Europeans as weaklings and cowards and criticisms of the Sharon administration and its conduct in Operation Defensive Shield as anti-Israel or even anti-Semitic.

To get past these destructive clichés, we should begin at the point of common agreement among most Europeans and most Americans: a revulsion at the barbaric suicide bombings by Palestinian terror groups and a firm conviction that nothing can justify such attacks. German commentators, for example, argue that nothing has hurt the Palestinian cause more than its strategy of terror and Yasir Arafat's ambiguous stance on the use of terror. Another point of agreement between mainstream Americans and mainstream Europeans is that there is no questioning Israel's right to exist, or its right to defend itself by any means, including military means, against the attacks of Hamas, the Al-Aksa Martyrs Brigade and other extremist groups.

Still, the differences between the European and the American perceptions start roughly from here. In the last few months, I have had the opportunity to follow the conflict from both sides of the Atlantic. Europeans see the same information Americans do. In the public arena on both continents, all (even the most extreme) points of view are represented. But that tells us little about which points of view dominate in the news media that determine mainstream opinion. Here, our differences are in fact considerable.

I was struck by the fact that as recently as the time of Secretary of State Colin Powell's visit to the Middle East, American television had barely raised the subject of settlements in the occupied territories. The American press, in contrast to the European press, has only recently noted that in the short time since Mr. Sharon took office, some 30 new settlements have been created — a policy of unlawful land seizure that every Israeli administration (with the exception of the Rabin administration) has pursued. When American commentators mention this problem, they treat it as inappropriate behavior, but hardly justifying any kind of strong response.

No one on the American side of the Atlantic seems to want to mention the settlements by name, as if to escape the suspicion that to do so might present a motive for the suicide bombings. Nothing can justify these attacks, but that doesn't mean that the taking of land should be silently accepted. Absent a recognition of this issue, demonstrating Palestinians can seem like a blindly raging mob, with no legitimate grounds for protest.

Europeans and Americans tend also to differ in their assessments of Yasir Arafat and Ariel Sharon. Most observers on both continents believe Mr. Arafat has a split strategy: preaching peace when he speaks in English, fomenting a jihad when he speaks in Arabic. Still, Europeans are generally stunned by the conviction with which the Bush administration has embraced Mr. Sharon's view that Mr. Arafat is the head terrorist, able to stop Palestinian terrorism with a single command. The photos that showed Yasir Arafat in his broken headquarters before his release last week did nothing to make this version of the situation more convincing.

But even assuming for a moment that Mr. Arafat is the head terrorist, why would the Bush administration continue to promote him as an equal partner in the negotiation process? Most European observers know for a fact that Yasir Arafat has, over the past 30 years, accomplished nothing for his people, and that he rejected an opportunity at Camp David — perhaps the only one ever — to achieve a just peace. That alone should be enough to discredit him as a negotiating partner. Even so, what sense was there in the Israeli Army's devastating not just Mr. Arafat's headquarters, but all the infrastructure that even the most Sharon-friendly Palestinian Authority would need to function: the airport, municipal buildings, schools, banks and streets?

Another point of discord is over Ariel Sharon's credibility. The Bush administration has called him a "man of peace." Yet most Europeans would note that he seems to have done everything he could to torpedo the peace initiative, including refusing to halt or remove the settlements. This is why many Europeans question the American conviction that Mr. Sharon really does want a viable Palestinian state.

Finally, some of the European skepticism about American views of the Middle East arises from the very strong alliance between the United States and Israel. America counts itself as Israel's closest friend. As a relatively young state under constant threat of terrorist attacks, Israel needs the United States to be such a friend. But can the United States, as Israel's firmest ally, also serve as an honest broker for Palestinian interests? Is it possible to be partial and impartial at the same time?

The differing views between the Western allies do not make for a comfortable or easy transatlantic discussion. But these differences exist, and they need to be constructively aired and debated. Unified international support, perhaps even in the form of an international force led by the Americans, seems critical to creating stability in the Middle East. On the conditions of a lasting peace, Europeans and Americans are likely to be in full agreement.

Peter Schneider is the author, most recently, of ``Eduard's Homecoming.'' His article was translated from German by Leigh Hafrey.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company