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Even its friends aren't allowed to criticise Israel

March 29, 2014 at 2:02 pm

This week, the head of the European Parliament, Martin Schulz, travelled to Israel and addressed the Knesset. It did not go according to plan. During Schulz’s speech, several far-right members of the Knesset (MKs) walked out.

Speaking in his native German, Schulz stressed the importance of remembering the Holocaust, and said that the European Union had no intention of boycotting Israel. He also stressed the suffering of the Palestinians, highlighting the “siege” of Gaza and the discrepancy in water consumed by Israeli settlers and Palestinians. Speaking of a visit to Ramallah, he said: “One of the questions these young people asked me which I found most moving – although I could not check the exact figures – was this: how can it be that an Israeli is allowed to use 70 litres of water per day, but a Palestinian only 17?”

It was these comments that proved too much for some ultra-nationalist politicians. Naftali Bennett, the economics minister and leader of the Jewish Home Party, led the walk-out and condemned Schulz’s comments as “lies”. Later, Bennett used his Facebook page to call for an apology: “I call on the prime minister to demand an immediate correction in the name of the state of Israel. I will not accept an untrue sermon on morality directed at Israel in Israel’s parliament. Definitely not in German.”

Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, accused Schulz of “selective hearing”. Like Bennett, he took issue specifically with Schulz’s comments on water consumption. The issue is controversial and hotly debated. A 2009 World Bank study found that in 2007 Israelis had access to 4.42 times as much water as Palestinians in the West Bank; not far off Schulz’s figures. The Israeli water authority says that settlers consume just 1.7 times more water than Palestinians. “Schulz admitted that he didn’t check if what he said is true, but he still blamed us,” says Netanyahu. “People accept any attack on Israel without checking it. They plug their ears.”

Bennett and his colleagues in Jewish Home also took umbrage at Schulz’s assertion that the blockade of Gaza is preventing growth. This is despite the fact that Schulz’s comment is supported by the facts: unemployment in the Gaza Strip rose 6 per cent to 38.5 per cent in the final quarter of 2013, following a ban on transferring construction materials to Gaza’s private sector.

Following the incident, Schulz said that he was “surprised and hurt by the harsh reaction, because the speech I delivered was pro-Israel.” Describing the Jewish Home members who walked out as “extremists”, Schulz stressed that he had “presented to the Knesset the position of the European parliament”. He added: “I cannot only say things that would be pleasant to everyone’s ears. I must also present the controversial side.” On the water comment, Schulz’s spokesman said that he was raising questions about “a claim that was brought to him…That’s legitimate.”

Response to the incident has been mixed. The EU has had a difficult relationship with Israel in recent months. Israel has accused Europe of meddling in peace negotiations by deciding to block funds from reaching illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. Germany, in particular, has had a complex relationship with Israel; in part because of the Holocaust, it has been one of the country’s staunchest supporters in Europe. As such, some German politicians have been critical of Schulz. Phillip Missfelder, a foreign policy spokesperson for the German government and a member of the centre-right Christian Democrats (Schulz is a member of the centre-left Social Democrats) said: “I regret what Mr Schulz did in the Knesset yesterday. I think it was a mistake. Mr Schulz would be well advised to try to repair the situation.”

Left-wing Israeli parliamentarians, though, have criticised the walk-out. “The behaviour of the Jewish Home MKs was shameful and scandalous,” said Isaac Herzog, leader of the Labour Party. “I think some of the [MKs] didn’t even hear the speech. My colleagues and I were embarrassed. We know Martin Schulz. He defends Israel’s position, including in the European Parliament.”

In part, Schulz had used his visit to Israel to stress that Europe was not planning to boycott Israel. (“My personal view is that a boycott is not a solution for anything,” he said. “And, therefore, as president of the European parliament I was strongly in favour, for example, of upgrading the scientific cooperation between the European Union and Israel.”) A fortnight previously, the US Secretary of State John Kerry was eviscerated in Israel for warning that Israel would face more calls for boycotts if the current round of talks with Palestinians collapsed.

Ironically, shortly before his Knesset speech, Schulz had complained about Israeli sensitivity to European criticism. “Mutual criticism is quite normal in a democracy,” he told Israeli journalists. “The EU stands by its special relationship with Israel, but that does not mean that it has to agree with every decision of the Israeli government.” Clearly, Naftali Bennett and his party do not agree.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.