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Tuesday, October 13, 2015

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EU’s Hezbollah policy has a steep price

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Bulgaria’s release of a report blaming Hezbollah for the bombing of a tourist bus in the city of Burgas last July that killed five Israelis and the Bulgarian bus driver has focused attention on the European Union, which, to date, has refused to label Hezbollah a terrorist organization.

Bulgaria, an EU member, went to extraordinary lengths, with American and Israeli forensic assistance, to determine that Iranian-backed Hezbollah was almost certainly responsible for the attack prior to announcing its verdict, out of concern about the pressure this would put on other EU members.

On Feb. 5, the New York Times noted: “[Bulgaria’s] announcement could force the European Union to reconsider designating the Lebanon-based group as a terrorist organization and cracking down on its fund-raising. That would upend Europe’s policy of quiet tolerance of the group.”

This led Walter Russell Mead, the respected strategic analyst, to remark on his American Interest blog that, if the Times is right, “Europe may now be in the process of discovering a spine.”

Mead’s hope may be a long time coming. For it seems that, even though Hezbollah carried out a deadly attack on EU soil, this may not be sufficient reason to cause other EU members, primarily France and Germany, to call a spade a spade. (Designating Hezbollah a terrorist organization requires unanimity among all 27 EU member states, but support from influential France and Germany is key.)

The Associated Press reported on Feb. 6 that, according to a spokesperson for German Chancellor Angela Merkel, “consequences will have to follow” if the evidence against Hezbollah is confirmed (although such consequences were not specified). AP noted that since Hezbollah has “almost 1,000 members” in the country collecting funds for the group, a legal ban would have major consequences that Germany might not be prepared to tackle.

In the Feb. 6 Jerusalem Post, Herb Keinon argued that despite Hezbollah’s well documented involvement in global terrorism since the twin bombings in Argentina in the 1990s, the Europeans have decided to look the other way. (Two exceptions, as Keinon notes, are the Netherlands and Britain, the latter of which only labels Hezbollah’s “armed wing” a terrorist organization).

Keinon remarked cynically: “The EU chose, and still continues to choose, to avert its eyes, not because of a lack of facts, but because of the interests and political considerations of some EU member states. And these interests and considerations will not change because of the Bulgarian report.”

In a study for the American Jewish Committee on Hezbollah’s activities in Europe, Yehudit Barsky drew attention to the westerners in Lebanon, including German and French citizens, who were kidnapped and held hostage by Hezbollah from 1985 to 1990. Following that, it appears a modus vivendi was reached whereby Hezbollah was allowed to operate relatively freely in Europe.

In the Feb. 6 Times of Israel, Raphael Ahren wrote: “Among policy analysts, it is indeed clear that the French are behind the EU’s refusal and had actually been pressuring Bulgarian authorities not to name Hezbollah so as not to up the pressure on them” and possibly incur a violent response.

Ahren interviewed counter-terrorism expert Matthew Levitt, who said: “The Europeans feel that if you poke Hezbollah or Iran in the eye, then they will do the same to you. If you leave them alone, then maybe they will leave you alone.”

France, Levitt explained, is particularly worried about the fate of its almost 900 troops who are part of UNIFIL, the United Nations Forces in Lebanon. After all, in 1983, 58 French paratroopers were killed in a Hezbollah truck bombing in Beirut, and between 1985 and 1986, 13 people were killed and 250 injured in a wave of 15 bombing attacks in Paris carried out by its operatives. France doesn’t want to risk returning to those days, nor does it want to risk losing its “influence” with the Lebanese government, now dominated by Hezbollah.

The price of keeping this feckless status quo, however, may be too steep – as demonstrated in Burgas last summer.

Paul Michaels is director of research and senior media relations for the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs.

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