BRUSSELS, Belgium – The deal to end the 39-day standoff in Bethlehem marks a success in Europe's efforts to claim a role in the Middle East. But Israeli suspicions, a reluctance to use economic muscle and internal divisions may yet keep Europe on the diplomatic sidelines.
European negotiators worked out an arrangement Thursday under which 13 of the Palestinian militants who sheltered in the Church of the Nativity, Christ's reputed birthplace, will be transferred to European countries and 26 to the Gaza Strip. The deal cleared the way for Israeli forces to withdraw from Bethlehem, the last West Bank city they occupied.
It offers an example of the role which some European diplomats believe they can play in the Middle East — standing alongside the United States in promoting Western values while at the same time offering the Palestinians the option of dealing with governments not so closely identified with Israel.
It is a role for which the European Union appears well suited. The EU is Israel's biggest market and a major source of funds for Yasser Arafat. Over the last two years, the EU has given the Palestinian Authority $305 million.
However, the Europeans have traditionally been reluctant to use trade as a weapon. And much of the money provided to the Palestinians goes for humanitarian projects which the Europeans are reluctant to curtail.
European diplomats admit privately that they have little leverage with the Israelis although Europe's goals for a settlement — security guarantees for Israel and statehood for the Palestinians — are broadly the same as Washington's.
Differences, however, lie in the approach.
Many Europeans blame the Palestinian suicide bombings on Israel's military occupation and settlements policy. On the other hand, many Americans see such bombings as no different from the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
"To Europeans it seems obvious that you can be at once appalled by the atrocities perpetrated by Palestinian suicide bombers and see the military reprisals by Ariel Sharon's Israeli government as worse than futile," wrote Philip Stephens in the Financial Times of London. "To say that massive military incursions into Palestinian territories or the steady expansion of Jewish settlements have been a mistake is not to question Israel's right to exist in peace and security."
The Tages-Anzeiger newspaper of Zurich, Switzerland, asked what Europeans would do if "a fanatic blew up a railway station, a bus or a restaurant?"
"Well, what we wouldn't do is occupy Lombardy and Alsace, set up encampments and then prefabricated homes, build security roads and eventually confiscate the best land and cut off the locals' water supply," the newspaper added.
To many Europeans, America's strong support for Israel is misguided.
Several European leaders were also quick to condemn Israel for refusing to allow a U.N. fact-finding team to visit the Jenin refugee camp after Palestinians claimed a massacre had occurred. No evidence was found, but Swedish Foreign Minister Anna Lindh said Israel's actions strengthened suspicions "that the Israeli armed forces committed serious crimes against human rights in Jenin."
Such comments have not gone down well in Israel or in the United States, which long sought to freeze the Europeans out of Middle East negotiations.
The Clinton Administration, for example, feared that Europe's involvement would harden Israeli positions and make the Palestinians less likely to compromise.
Europe got back in the game after the Bush administration withdrew from Middle East diplomacy. German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer played a key role in negotiating a short-lived cease-fire after a bomber killed 21 young partygoers outside a Tel Aviv discotheque last June.
However, the Europeans made little headway, not only because they lack influence with Israel but also because the 15 EU member states have no common foreign policy.
For example, the French pushed a plan in March which included an immediate declaration of an independent Palestinian state. The Germans, however, shared the U.S. view that security issues between Israel and the Palestinians had to be sorted out first.
Much of the difficulty in dealing with Israel stems from Europe's history of anti-Semitism, including the Holocaust. Last month, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres bluntly told a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Valencia, Spain, that recent attacks on European synagogues prove anti-Semitism still exists in Europe.
"There are single voices, there are even organizations that are anti-Semitic," Peres said, reminding reporters that "Europe has a history" in Israel.
Such comments enrage many Europeans. EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana last week described Europe as a region of "democratic values and tolerance" and insisted it was "a mistake to think that overnight it has changed into a xenophobic, racist and anti-Semitic territory."