Two events last week have illustrated, once again, how much Europe’s tin ear on Iran, and on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to function, despite a rapidly changing geopolitical environment in the region.
The United Nations Security Council, in a 2-2 vote, with 11 abstentions, refused to support an extension of the arms embargo on Iran, which has been in place since 2007. Russia and China voted against, which came as no surprise. The only country that joined the United States, which has for some time supported the extension, was the Dominican Republic. But among the countries casting an abstention were Belgium, Estonia, France, Germany and the United Kingdom. Nine votes were needed to adopt an extension of the embargo.
The embargo not only prohibits the sale of conventional weapons to Iran but also prohibits Iran from transferring weapons to its proxies. It’s been in violation of this provision through its repeated delivery of rockets and other weaponry to Hezbollah and other terrorist organizations.
In their explanation of why they voted as they did, the Europeans expressed concern that an embargo extension would chase Tehran away from the discredited 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), ostensibly agreed to in order to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons.
The United States withdrew from the plan in 2018, citing its loose provisions and loopholes that would allow, after a period of 15 years, Iran to continue its nuclear weapons program. Effective, unannounced inspections of military sites, for example — a provision touted by supporters of the JCPOA — could not be carried out under the plan because of an arcane protocol of advance notice to the Iranians. Nor was Iran’s ballistic missile program, focused on being able to carry nuclear warheads as far as the heart of Europe, dismantled.
With cover provided by the JCPOA, Iran has set about to militarily and geopolitically meddle in the affairs of its neighbors. Its presence, or proxy connections in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and of course Lebanon are there for all to see. Lebanon has become part of “Iran Inc.” with its terrorist proxy Hezbollah having insinuated itself into the cabinet, and the terror group’s influence on the Lebanese army growing year-to-year. Not to mention its relationship with Hamas, in what amounts to a real time Shia-Sunni demonstration of the dictum, “the enemy of my enemy [Israel] is my friend.”
The final straw for those who cling to the JCPOA should have been Israel’s carrying off that trove of documents last year from a Tehran warehouse, that makes it abundantly clear that Iran has been developing nuclear weapons. What more could the Security Council want for evidence of Tehran’s intentions?
And as if that weren’t enough, the Gulf Cooperation Council, representing six countries with varying interests in the region, supported the extension of the embargo because of Iran’s constant threats to most of its member states.
So instead of sending a clear message to Iran that its malign behavior will no longer be tolerated, whether it be its nuclear ambitions, its support for terrorism or its hegemonist sweep across the region, by not voting to extend the arms embargo, Europe once again punted. Its lack of principle is not only disheartening, it is frightening.
Notwithstanding European expressions of “concern” over Iranian behavior, the real test — voting for the continuation of the embargo — has been failed miserably by governments whose modus operandi on this and many other vital issues is to do some can-kicking down the road of international diplomacy.
The other major event involving the region last week was the tremendously transformative announcement of the normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. Along with the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian peace agreements which preceded it, the Abraham Accord is the third pillar of diplomatic achievements to bring stability to the region.
For decades the conventional thinking was that if an Israeli-Palestinian agreement could be achieved, peace between Israel and the rest of the Arab world would soon follow (see: the Fahd Plan, later called the Arab Peace Initiative, which promoted that approach to peacemaking). In fact, the 1979 agreement with Egypt, and the 1994 pact with Jordan did not wait for an agreement with the Palestinians, making the point that procrastination, where real strategic interests are at stake, makes no sense.
The Palestinians have walked away from numerous opportunities to negotiate a deal with Israel. Now, time has moved on, and they are looking at a train that is rapidly moving out of the station.
That approach has now been validated by the normalization agreement announced by President Donald Trump. Reaction among most European states was favorable. For months, though, the European Union and most of its member states were obsessed with warning Israel against an annexation plan in the West Bank that they were absolutely sure would happen. They might have spent that time more productively urging the Palestinian Authority to come to the negotiating table with Israel, but preferred instead to browbeat Israel, in the-sky-is-falling rhetoric.
Notwithstanding the encomiums that have flowed in from most European capitals, Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn introduced a jarring assessment of the normalization agreement, in language reminding us that old speak on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still alive and well in Europe.
Said Asselborn of the diplomatic breakthrough, speaking critically of the UAE with Germany’s Deutschlandfunk radio: “…I think you can’t just let down your own brothers [Palestinians] in order to pursue economic interests and perhaps also have more security for yourself.”
Never have more hypocritical words been spoken. If Asselborn is right, what is Luxembourg doing in the European Union or as a member of NATO? Of course nation states pursue economic and security interests. Some also pursue policies aimed at bringing peace and stability to their neighborhoods, which is what the normalization agreement looks to accomplish.
Asselborn didn’t stop there; it gets worse: ”I am not an expert in theology, but I think that in all cultures and religions there is a well-established norm against theft. This is one of the basic norms of human co-existence….” He went on to say that “notwithstanding the Ten Commandments, seizing territory by force is a violation of Israel’s obligations under the U.N. Charter…and goes against a host of U.N. Security Council resolutions.”
Not only are Asselborn’s remarks an expression of sour grapes, but he has crossed a red line in diplo-speak. He is charging Israel, citing none other than the Ten Commandments, with stealing from the Palestinians, which takes it dangerously into blood libel territory. The old Yiddish expression — “vos iz oyfn lung iz oyfn tsung” — or what it is you breathe (really believe) is what you say,” — has never been more apt.
How can countries whose representatives hold such views, given the history of the region and the complexities of peacemaking, ever present themselves as honest brokers or even objective observers of the Israeli-Palestinian conundrum?
The European abstentions in the Security Council vote on extending the arms embargo on Iran, and the Asselborn comments on the Israel-UAE normalization pact are stark reminders that in parts of Europe old attitudes and biases die hard. It’s not only imagination that’s lacking in Europe, it is an inability — or perhaps unwillingness — to act on principle. Standing up to bullies like Iran or recognizing that the diplomatic winds blowing out of the Gulf represent initiatives that might in fact lead to some kind of accommodation between Israel and the Palestinians, are the shape of things to come.
Stuck somewhere in the 20th century, Europe is late to the game, the one where tectonic shifts which present new opportunities to bring about positive changes in the world order, are taking place every day.
Read CEO Mariaschin's expert analysis in the Times of Israel.
Daniel S. Mariaschin is CEO and Executive Vice President of B'nai B'rith International.
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