- The Washington Times - Monday, July 10, 2006

BRUSSELS — The shift is subtle but unmistakable. European governments — long accused of being pro-Arab — have toned down criticism of Israel, left in shock by the rise to power of Islamic Hamas, which they consider a terrorist outfit.

The rise of Hamas and the subsequent deterioration of peace prospects have left the European Union in a quandary. The election of the Hamas government has pulled the rug out from under its $626.5 million-a-year aid package that feeds, clothes and educates many Palestinians and distanced the European Union from them.

After the Hamas government was sworn in, the European Union strongly condemned it for refusing to recognize Israel. The one-page statement contrasted with the bloc’s usually long Mideast declarations that take pains to show balance.

The bloc’s tilt toward the Jewish state was highlighted after Israel’s attacks last week on infrastructure targets in the Gaza Strip. Normally such strikes elicit stinging rebukes, but this time, they brought only limp appeals to both sides to resolve the crisis through diplomacy.

The European Union formally denies any policy shift, yet analysts see a more nuanced approach to the Mideast conflict caused mainly by the unexpected Hamas victory in January. They also think the Europeans are seeking to move closer to the U.S. position to maintain some say in the region.

Last week, after Israeli tanks and troops mounted their offensive in a bid to free a soldier captured by Palestinian militants, EU External Relations Commissioner Benita Ferrero-Waldner simply urged the two sides “to consider their responsibilities extremely carefully.”

She demanded that the militants release the soldier but stayed silent on Israel’s destruction of bridges and the Gaza Strip’s only power plant, as well as the unprecedented arrest of 64 top Hamas officials, including eight Cabinet members and 26 lawmakers.

In the past, the European Union has demanded that Israel repay it for damage caused to infrastructure that often is financed with European money, but there was no mention of that this time.

“The European Union’s lukewarm reaction is shocking when even infrastructure built through the EU’s own investments is being destroyed,” said Marwan Bishara, a lecturer in international affairs in France. “Europe is now following the U.S. policy of being passive toward Israeli actions.”

Declining support for the Palestinian cause in Europe was another factor, said Dominique Moisi of the French Institute for International Relations.

“They have disappointed Europeans by their divisions, their lack of organization, the spectacle of violence in Gaza” between various Palestinian factions, he said. “By refusing to recognize Israel’s right to exist, Hamas has weakened the Palestinians’ position considerably.”

Yossi Alpher, an adviser to Israel’s former Prime Minister Ehud Barak said that a few years ago, the Europeans would have criticized Israel much more explicitly for an attack such as the one in Gaza. However, he warned that this relative silence may change quickly if Israel’s heavy-handed actions result in civilian casualties or a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

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