Has the European Union, among the harshest critics of Israel during the past two years of Palestinian violence, changed its thinking?
A member of the European Parliament from France, which has seen some of the worst anti-Semitic and anti-Israel violence in Europe since the start of the intifada, believes it has.
Francois Zimeray bases his assessment on his success in garnering enough signatures from fellow members of the European Parliament to call for a probe of the Palestinian Authority’s finances.
Israel and media reports have charged that some of the EU money sent to the PA has been used for terrorism and pocketed by corrupt Palestinians.
Since June 2001, the European Union has sent the Palestinian Authority $10 million each month (10 percent of its income) to pay the salaries of its 125,000 employees.
Zimeray said his success is most notable because of the strong objections of Chris Patten, the EU’s commissioner for external affairs, who said such a probe was needed like a "hole in the head." Patten asserted that the charges had been fully investigated and found to be erroneous.
Just one day after it was announced that 170 parliamentary members supported the probe (157 was the minimum number needed to put the matter on the agenda) the anti-fraud office of the European Commission, the executive branch of the EU, revealed that for the past several months it had been conducting its own probe into the PA’s finances. If misuse was found, the anti-fraud office said it would seek to recover the money and possible administrative or criminal prosecutions against individuals.
This action, plus an informal probe by the European Parliament itself, demonstrates that "attitudes have changed" at the EU, Zimeray said in an interview in New York.
Avi Beker, secretary general of the World Jewish Congress, agreed, saying that when he met with Zimeray in November there were only 30 signatures on the petition.
"It was like mission impossible" to get the signatures needed, Beker said.
"This is a breakthrough for those who did not feel they could campaign and achieve results in such a hostile [anti-Israel] environment," he insisted.
But Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, director of the Israel Law Center that last May sued the EU for allegedly allowing the PA to use its money for terrorist activities, charged that the anti-fraud office’s probe was orchestrated by Patten himself to derail efforts at launching an independent audit of the PA.
"The EU’s efforts to do an end run around the investigation ensures that [the anti-fraud office’s] final report will be a whitewash and that European taxpayers will never learn that they are the ones funding the murder of Jews in Israel," she said.
Zimeray said, however, that he has confidence in the anti-trust office and that it "will acknowledge [misuse] if they find it." And he said it is now up to Israel to provide the evidence of Palestinian corruption.
"It is important for Israel to prepare a case and present the evidence it has," he said. "That’s their job, not mine."
Israel reportedly has already provided the EU with reams of documents its troops captured last year that it said proves the Palestinian Authority paid terrorists who carried out attacks on Israeli civilians.
Some of the documents, which are said to have been authenticated by American and German authorities, allegedly show that the terrorists were paid by checks authorized by Palestinian President Yasir Arafat and issued by his Ministry of Finance.
Among the documents is one signed by Arafat ordering the payment of $2,000 each to the families of Hamas suicide bombers, and a $9,000 payment to a car rental company in Gaza after the firm’s car, being used by a Hamas activist, was blown up by Israeli forces.
Zimeray said that even before the EU’s probe is complete, he is convinced that the organization’s donations (which total $1.4 billion since 1993) have helped "fuel the violence" against Israel during the past two years.
"We did not sanction [the Palestinians] when they refused the peace proposals of the Israelis," he said. "Nor when we learned their educational system was providing a pedagogy of hatred, or when they were involved in [smuggling weapons aboard] the Karine A, or when they released terrorists."
Instead, Zimeray said, the European Union continued "giving the Palestinian Authority unconditional support. … This attitude contributed to the fact that they did not have to be responsible, and it’s why I consider that our policy cost lives.
"If two years ago Europe had firmly told the Palestinians that this [violence] is enough, that we are going to sanction you [for your actions], the Palestinians would have changed their policy and come back to the Camp David talks."
But Zimeray said the probe by the anti-fraud office, plus an informal investigation by the European Parliament itself, demonstrates that "attitudes have changed" at the EU.
As Beker of the WJC was speaking of "a breakthrough," European leaders were saying the key to solving the Iraqi situation was a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
In addition, the European Union sent a letter to Israel harshly critical of its actions toward the Palestinians. An Israeli official called the letter "one of the most serious that we have received in the recent past."
In a letter of reply, Israeli Foreign Minister Benjamin Netanyahu decried the EU’s attempt to link the two crises.
"If [Saddam Hussein] believes today that by ‘championing a cause’ unrelated to his own, but which respectable governments link to Iraq, we may once again find ourselves a target of Iraqi missiles," he warned.