Dispatch

How Israel Lost Europe

How Benjamin Netanyahu lost friends and Mahmoud Abbas influenced people.

BERLIN — There was never much doubt that the U.N. General Assembly would overwhelmingly vote to upgrade the Palestinian Authority to the status of nonmember state on Nov. 29. The big surprise of the event was that a number of key Western European countries did not join the United States and vote against the resolution. The Czech Republic was the only European country to vote against the upgrade, and shockingly, the normally staunchly pro-Israeli governments of Germany and Britain decided to abstain. Does this mean that Israel has lost Europe?

Germany's surprising decision, in the eleventh hour, to shift from opposing Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's bid to abstaining on it was reportedly tied to the question of Israel's ongoing construction of settlements in the West Bank -- a recent source of contention in European capitals. Germany appears to have taken this opportunity to address the conflict on the world stage.

This decision was especially shocking to Israelis given Germany's historical relationship with the Jewish state. Chancellor Angela Merkel declared in a 2008 speech before the Knesset that she supported Israel's right to defend itself and that only the Israelis and Palestinians -- without external interference -- could negotiate a two-state solution.

"Every German chancellor before me has shouldered Germany's special historical responsibility for Israel's security," Merkel said then. "This historical responsibility is part of my country's raison d'être. For me as German chancellor, therefore, Israel's security will never be open to negotiation."

The Federal Republic has based a large chunk of its devotion to Israel's security on the notion of Wiedergutmachung, or reparations for the German crimes against European Jewry during the Holocaust.

Although Germany likes to present itself as Israel's strongest ally in Europe, the relationship has often been shaky. Take the example of Christoph Heusgen, Merkel's national security advisor and Middle East point man, who in 2009 -- a year after the chancellor's speech before the Knesset -- sought to convince U.S. envoys to weaken Washington's opposition to the United Nations' Goldstone Report, which alleged Israeli war crimes in Gaza during that year's Operation Cast Lead.

According to a WikiLeaked cable from the U.S. Embassy in Berlin at the time, Heusgen "thought [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu needed 'to do more' in order [to] bring the Palestinians to the negotiating table. With Palestinians in East Jerusalem getting notices from Israeli authorities that their houses will be destroyed, it would be 'suicide' for President Abbas to move under the current circumstances."

The cable continued: "Heusgen said he could not fathom why Netanyahu did not understand this. He suggested pressuring Netanyahu by linking favorable UNSC [U.N. Security Council] treatment of the Goldstone Report to Israel committing to a complete stop in settlement activity."

In 2010, Merkel and Netanyahu had a heated telephone exchange over the settlements issue, and the relationship further frayed over Germany's decision this year to upgrade the Palestinian Authority's representation in Berlin to that of a full diplomatic mission with an ambassador.

Germany's U.N. abstention on Nov. 29 may also have been driven by domestic calculations. Specifically, Merkel may inherit the Social Democratic Party (SPD) as a coalition partner in a new government in elections in late 2013. This month, SPD officials hosted representatives of Palestine's ruling Fatah party at the SPD's Berlin headquarters and published a joint declaration affirming a "strategic partnership" between the two parties.

Meanwhile, France's relations with Israel have been uneasy for more than a decade. Famously, in 2001, France's ambassador to Britain, Daniel Bernard, called Israel "that shitty little country." More recently, then-President Nicolas Sarkozy offended the Israelis with his famous hot-mic fiasco at the 2011 G-20 meeting, in which he told U.S. President Barack Obama he couldn't stand Netanyahu (and Obama concurred).

During Sarkozy's tenure, France was also a vocal proponent of upgrading the Palestinian status at UNESCO. When the Paris-based UNESCO granted the Palestinians member-state status, U.S. law compelled the Obama administration to withhold its $80 million annual contribution to the organization. Washington registered its displeasure with the move in no uncertain terms. As State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland stated, the vote was "regrettable, premature, and undermines our shared goal of a comprehensive, just, and lasting peace in the Middle East."

Sarkozy's successor, François Hollande, did not let the financial blow to this Paris-based organization get in the way of his support for the Palestinians at the United Nations. Hollande has made clear that the settlement issue is a priority for his government. "It erodes the building of trust between the sides and constitutes an obstacle to a just peace, based on a two-state solution," said France's Foreign Ministry in a statement this month.

In a late-October meeting with Netanyahu in Paris, Hollande said that the two countries had "divergences on occupation, which we want to see halted."

Although Hollande has played his cards close to the vest, he announced this week that he would support Abbas's bid. His position against the Jewish state was particularly startling given the recent uptick in anti-Semitic violence that has rocked France in recent years, forcing Paris and Jerusalem to jointly deal with this disturbing trend.

With France pushing for Palestinian statehood and Germany largely sitting out the fight, other European governments soon cast their votes in favor of Abbas's bid too.

According to one European diplomat well versed in Spain's foreign policy, Hollande capitalized on the weak Spanish economy to push Madrid to vote for the PLO's upgrade. "France knows our weakness -- the bank crisis -- and expanded it to foreign policy," he said. In short, the diplomat noted that Spain had joined France as part of a bloc of countries -- including Italy and Portugal -- in exchange for France's protection in upcoming rounds of austerity talks.

The diplomat also noted that Spain is attempting to obtain a seat on the U.N. Security Council and that the vote may have been a way to court favor from Arab countries.

Israel could once count on Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's staunch support, but this has given way to successor Mario Monti's cold shoulder. Monti's support for the Palestinian bid was an about-face from Italy's position when Abbas attempted a similar maneuver one year ago.

(As for the now-isolated Czechs, Prague's decision to veto the PLO's move came as no surprise. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz has dubbed noble-born Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg the "Zionist prince" for his support during Operation Cast Lead.)

Israel's brief war against Hamas in Gaza this month may also have had an impact on EU decision-makers. Faced with the PLO's deepening irrelevance and the growing potency of Hamas and its Iranian military arsenal on Israel's southern border, Israeli officials say that the Europeans may have wanted to give the nonviolent Abbas a moment in the sun. In other words, they wished to demonstrate approval for bureaucratic and legal strategies over the brutal violence of Abbas's rivals in Gaza.

So, after the better part of a decade of diplomacy between PLO embassies and their host governments from Latin America to the Levant, Abbas won his diplomatic upgrade.

Israel, for its part, made no diplomatic overtures to counter Abbas's whirlwind tour of European capitals over the last two years, which included multiple visits to multiple capitals, including Berlin. The Israelis produced no tangible alternative to persuade European leaders from voting for the upgrade. Abbas badly outflanked Netanyahu, while Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who remains widely reviled among Europeans, did not exercise the diplomatic finesse necessary to keep Israel's continental allies at his side.

In fairness, Israel always faced an uphill battle in Europe, where Muslim populations are on the rise and pro-Palestinian sentiments continue to gain traction. From the EU's perspective, Israel's long-standing recalcitrance over settlements and the rise of Hamas probably made support for Abbas inevitable.

But for Netanyahu to find himself all alone, with only a reluctant partner in Washington and seven other countries by his side, must surely have come as a shock.

MARTIN BUREAU/AFP/Getty Images

Dispatch

Cancer at the Heart

With Hugo Chávez in Cuba for yet more medical treatment, will Venezuela fall apart without him?

CARACAS, Venezuela — Belkis Martinez isn't taking any chances. Minutes after hearing that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez was leaving for Cuba for another round of medical treatment, the 42-year-old hairstylist who lives in Antímano, a working-class neighborhood of Caracas, was in line at her supermarket buying canned goods and crackers.

"I just can't help but think that they aren't telling us the real story about El Comandante," said Martinez, referring to the president. "If something would happen to him, anything could happen. His enemies could try to take power, or maybe people within in his own party would try. I just want to be prepared for the worst, especially if rioting breaks out or they declare martial law."

The Venezuelan president's return to Havana for additional medical care comes as he seeks to deepen the country's socialist revolution after winning a new six-year term on Oct. 7. Chávez, who has been battling cancer since June 2011, won 55 percent of the vote, compared with 44 percent for the governor of Miranda state, Henrique Capriles Radonski. He has repeatedly said the vote was a mandate for him to expand socialism in the country, and opponents fear that he may seek to restrict personal freedoms and place fresh limits on private property. But without Chávez leading the revolution, few believe that his successors will have any luck fulfilling his agenda.

Speculation about Chávez's health has been growing since he won reelection and then dramatically cut back his public appearances. According to figures compiled by the Caracas-based El Universal newspaper, Chávez amassed 2,850 minutes' worth of public appearances in July, including campaign and government activities, interviews, news conferences, and televised telephone calls. In August and September, the totals were 3,730 minutes and 2,466 minutes, respectively, but in October, the president's appearances slumped to 879 minutes. In November to date, they have fallen to a mere 495 minutes. For Venezuelans accustomed to hearing Chávez's characteristically long-winded speeches several times a week, his absence is tangible.

Chávez's health remains shrouded in mystery -- he has repeatedly refused to divulge details about his illness -- but he has admitted to undergoing three pelvic surgeries, including one to extract a tumor. In September, the president publicly broke down and implored God to allow him to live longer, fueling already rampant speculation that his condition is terminal. Chávez's struggle has spawned at least one website dedicated to tracking changes in his health. Still, Chávez's Nov. 28 departure for Cuba surprised many, given its timing.

The trip coincided with a military parade celebrating the 20th anniversary of his second unsuccessful coup against then-President Carlos Andrés Pérez -- a parade he had been scheduled to attend. It also occurred less than three weeks before Venezuelans are scheduled to go to the polls for gubernatorial and state elections. Chávez had been expected to campaign for candidates of his United Socialist Party of Venezuela (PSUV), several of whom are facing stiff challengers.

The president has not been seen since he appeared at a carefully choreographed televised meeting with ministers on Nov. 15. At that time, he seemed animated, but his face was palpably swollen. Rumors of his imminent demise and possible political instability helped push the black-market dollar rate to a record high 20 bolívars briefly this week, before it fell back to 15. The official exchange rate is 4.3 bolívars to the dollar. Adding to the uncertainty is the fact that Chávez left the country under a cloud of secrecy. In the past, his health-related travels have been broadcast live on television. This time, however, he left it to Diosdado Cabello, president of the Venezuelan National Assembly, to read a short statement announcing his departure.

According to the statement, Chávez requested the assembly's permission to leave the country for more than five days -- as spelled out in the Venezuelan Constitution -- for physical therapy and hyperbaric oxygenation treatment. Such treatment, which consists of breathing pure oxygen under pressurized conditions, is often prescribed for post-surgical patients to speed their recovery. Its use for cancer patients, however, is more controversial, as the pure oxygen can also feed cancerous cells, allowing them to grow more rapidly.

Cabello, a former vice president and one of Chávez's closest collaborators, did not offer a specific date for Chávez's expected return. Instead, he assured the public that the president would be back in time for his inauguration ceremony on Jan. 10. Information Minister Ernesto Villegas subsequently said that Chávez started treatment upon arrival in Cuba and that the procedures were cancer-related. He further explained that the president's condition had been exacerbated by campaigning. "He didn't follow the advice of those who told him not to campaign,'' said Villegas. "He did, and like the extraordinary political leader that he is, he made an effort."

Since his initial treatment, Chávez has made at least 16 health-related trips to Cuba. He is also widely suspected of having made several undisclosed stops for medical care. Rejecting advice from friends such as former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Chávez has refused to seek treatment outside Cuba, fearing that his medical condition could be leaked to the media if he did.

Just six months ago, in the heat of the presidential campaign, Chávez claimed that he was cancer-free, after at least three operations as well as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Still, Chávez often looked heavily made up and tired with noticeable facial swelling during the campaign. That he didn't look worse was attributed to his rumored use of steroids to maintain his strength and physical appearance.

But not everyone is convinced that Chávez is on his deathbed. "I just think his departure to Cuba is yet another ruse to gain votes for the PSUV and their candidates in the upcoming elections,'' said Javier Rojas, a chemical engineer in Caracas. "He has relapses every time he needs support or votes from the masses, who don't question him or his motives. I don't think he is sick at all."

Under the Venezuelan Constitution, Vice President Nicolás Maduro would assume power if Chávez were unable to serve. But Maduro, who was only named vice president last month, is regarded by many as an uninspiring leader, lacking Chávez´s political skills. And cracks in Chávez´s ruling PSUV have already appeared as rumors about his condition have spread.

At the state level, Chávez's decision to seek treatment in Cuba could have real political consequences, whether or not he recovers. In several states, the president's backers have been unable to unite around a single gubernatorial candidate, leading Cabello to castigate party officials. Venezuela's opposition currently holds seven of the country's 23 statehouses. And after the presidential vote, in which the opposition did remarkably well, many of these races are seen as wide open.

At his inauguration in January, Chávez is expected to spell out initiatives for deepening the revolution through 2019. Among them could be new nationalizations, a possible devaluation, and the abolition of state and regional governments in favor of peoples' communes. "I am afraid of what may happen to Chávez between now and then," said Giovanna Lozada, who owns a boutique in Caracas. "But I think I am more scared as to what the president may say on Jan. 10."

LEO RAMIREZ/AFP/Getty Images