January 5, 2009

In a post titled "Transatlantic Differences," Alex Massie muses about how differently Americans would react than Brits to news that two members of the shadow cabinet of the conservative party had entered (separately) into homosexual civil unions.

On the foreign policy front, the latest iteration in the seemingly endless cycle of violence in the Israel-Palestine conflict demonstrates a more important transatlantic difference: the United States is virtually alone in its steadfast support of Israel, which most of our European allies see as engaging in reckless brutality.

Javier Solana, the one-time NATO Secretary General and now EU High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy, was blunt: "The current Israeli strikes are inflicting an unacceptable toll on Palestinian civilians and will only worsen the humanitarian crisis as well as complicate the search for a peaceful solution." Similarly, French president Nicolas Sarkozy — who also holds the rotating EU presidency — condemned the invasion as an "unjustifiable provocation" and demanded an immediate ceasefire and the "re-opening of all checkpoints and the immediate resumption of fuel and humanitarian aid deliveries."  Austria's Michael Spindelegger said that "the scores of civilian victims over the last few days are unacceptable" and called on Israel to "avoid a disproportional" response.

Others were more diplomatic.  British prime minister Gordon Brown, "I understand the Israeli government's sense of obligation to its population. Israel needs to meet its humanitarian obligations, act in a way to further the long-term vision of a two-state solution, and do everything in its power to avoid civilian casualties."  Still, even he added that he was "deeply concerned" about "Israel's response" to the missile attacks.  Italy's government was noncommittal, issuing a statement last week that, "Prime Minister Berlusconi hopes that this new wave of clashes does not degenerate further and asks all parties involved to immediately cease the launching of rockets at Israel as well as the bombings in the Gaza Strip."

In Western Europe, only the Germans have been unequivocal in their support of Israel. Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted that responsibility for the crisis rested "clearly and exclusively" on Hamas for launching rockets on civilians.

Merkel's stance is understandable, given her country's past.  America's virtually automatic support of Israel, even for actions that are not only outside the norms of international law but decidedly unhelpful to our own interests in the Middle East is more puzzling.  It is, however, a longstanding and bipartisan facet of American foreign policy.   Don't expect anything different when Barack Obama takes office two weeks from now.

James Joyner is managing editor of the Atlantic Council.

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