The decision by Martin Schulz to repeat hearsay during an address to the Knesset was a very silly blunder; the decision by the Jewish Home to storm out dramatically in protest was equally silly, and reckless.
In the middle of a speech that was exceptionally (and some might say, excessively) gushing in praise and respect for Israel, the President of the European Parliament made a slight diplomatic faux pas:
One of the questions these young people asked me which I found most moving – although I could not check the exact figures – was this: how can it be that an Israeli is allowed to use 70 litres of water per day, but a Palestinian only 17?
Cue outrage and hysteria, as several right-wing MKs heckled Schulz (“the Palestinians are lying!”) and stormed out in a fury.
Naftali Bennett and Martin Schulz need to apologise to each other – and more importantly, they need to apologise to their own people.
Bennett should apologise to Schulz because his party’s behaviour was nothing if not bad manners, and totally unbecoming of the dignity of the Knesset. To link their criticism of Schulz to slurs about his German nationality was disgraceful. Motti Yogev expressed fury at the “lies” repeated by a “son of the German nation“; Naftali Bennett thundered that he would not tolerate “false moralising… certainly not in German”. This to a statesman who, despite being born a decade after the end of WWII, proclaimed that he bore “the same responsibility as every other German for the mass murder perpetrated in the name of my nation” and “bow[s] down” to their memory. For shame.
But Bennett needs to apologise to the Israeli people for so publicly humiliating an ally and a friend. There is no shortage of Europeans who would like to see Israel crushed under the weight of boycotts, but Schulz went out of his way to praise Israeli “freedom, democracy and the rule of law”; he practically regurgitated the Hatikvah when he exalted to Israel for “embod[ying] the hope cherished by a people of being able to live a life of freedom in a homeland of their own”. Schulz spoke at length the Holocaust, expressed fears about rising anti-Semitism, promised that the EU would “stand shoulder-to-shoulder” with Israel, quoted Ariel Sharon and Yitzhak Rabin, invoked the spectre of Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, praised Israeli hi-tech, stated his opposition to the boycotts, expressed understanding vis-à-vis Israel’s responses to terrorism, and even commended Menachem Begin for his courage!
In short, Schulz ticked all the boxes, giving Canadian PM Stephen Harper a run for his money for pro-Israel speech of the year. Bennett’s party, however, repaid this gracious statesmanship and diplomacy by throwing a hissy fit. Israel cannot afford to alienate its friends: it has far too few. The Jewish Home has done Israel a massive disservice, and the Israeli people deserve an apology for the embarrassment.
At the same time, however, Martin Schulz should apologise too. Accusing Israel of depriving the Palestinians of adequate water while admitting “I could not check the exact figures” was insulting. The remarks hit a raw nerve, because it appeared to vindicate Israelis’ suspicions about Europeans: that they don’t know what they’re talking about, that they make foreign policy on the basis of a distorted understanding of the facts, and that this puts Israeli lives at risk.
Only last week, Bennett criticised foreign peace plans for “blowing up in our faces, again and again and again“. Now he knows why: Europe has “little understanding of the physical and emotional scars which terrorism leaves behind”, as Schulz confessed, and a poor grasp of the facts too. Israelis already fear that the world does not understand their situation and condemns them on the basis of Palestinian propaganda: to hint that Europe makes its judgements on the basis of rumours, instead of proper investigation, was the height of folly.
Moreover, for Schulz to admit through the self-conscious and casual repetition of hearsay that he had not checked his facts exemplified the haughty, condescending and unsympathetic stereotype of an EU official that Schulz was evidently so keen to shake off, and had been doing so well.
This gets to the heart of how Israelis understand the way the world sees them. Israeli public diplomacy (hasbara) is based on the belief that if only the world understood the truth, it would inevitably agree with Israel. Since the facts are on their side, Israelis believe that the reason for hypocrisy and double-standards is either malice or a mis-understanding of the facts. If only perceptions were brought into line with reality, the thought goes, Israel could get a fair hearing in the court of public opinion; and with a fair hearing, it would win. But how can Israel expect a fair hearing when Europe relies on hearsay evidence?
As for the content of Schulz’s accusation that Israelis receive 4.12 times as much water as Palestinians, the precise figure is disputed. The Water Authority puts the number at 1.41, with the bulk of the difference attributed to leaking pipes in the West Bank and disparities in industrial development (and therefore demand). The World Bank puts the discrepancy even higher than Schulz does, but it lifts its statistics from the Palestinian Bureau of the Statistics, whose reliability is questionable, to say the least. The precise number, in any case, is immaterial: the chutzpah lay in plucking a number out of the air.
So not only should Schulz apologise to Israel for repeating accusatory rumours, he should also apologise to the EU: his speech will now be recalled as evidence that Europe just doesn’t “get” it. All the hard work of convincing Israel that Europe sympathises and understands the Israeli predicament is now at risk of being undone by this rookie error.
For Israel to make bold concessions for peace, it needs to know that the Western world has its back and fully comprehends the risks to which it demands Israel expose itself. Martin Schulz has inadvertently and very clumsily undermined that belief. What a pity.