LONDON — The Jewish lobby and the religious right in the United States have described European critics of the policies of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and his government as anti-Semitic. Such comments reveal a woeful ignorance of Europe and the real issues in the Middle East. They also tend to confirm European suspicions that some Americans apply a double standard to the crisis in the Middle East.

The suicide bombings in Israel, which have caused the deaths of innocent civilians, can never be condoned, but they are not the same as the appalling events in the U.S. on Sept. 11. The firm response of the West to the al-Qaeda threat and the military action taken by the Americans and supported by Britain and other countries were fully justified.

The response by the Israeli government to Palestinian attacks, however, seems to many observers to have been disproportionate. Many more Palestinian civilians than Israeli civilians have been killed in the Israeli Army attacks on towns in the West Bank. The devastation caused to the Palestinian infrastructure by the Israeli Army means that the Palestinian authorities are not now, or for some time to come, able to take the kind of action demanded by the Israeli government. This opens the way for further Israeli military intervention that may ultimately destroy any semblance of a Palestinian Authority.

Some observers think this is what Sharon wanted all along. Most Israelis want peace, and many Israelis doubt the wisdom of Sharon’s policies and deplore the image that the Israeli Army has created by its apparent disregard for human rights. As the ends do not justify the means, it is difficult for many Christians to understand the American Republican Party’s rightwing support for Sharon.

Israel and Palestine must coexist with security. Victory for one side or the other cannot be achieved without destroying any prospect of peace. The longer the fighting continues, the more both Israelis and Palestinians will suffer.

The refusal by Israeli authorities to accept a high-level U.N. investigative mission, led by eminent and neutral observers such as the former president of Finland and Japan’s Sadako Ogata, has led many European observers to conclude that the Israelis must have something to hide about their recent military operations in the Jenin refugee camp.

Palestinians, as much as Israelis, have a right to justice and a fair trial. The Israeli government’s allegation that its case would not be given a fair hearing by the investigative commission is an insult to the U.N. secretary general and the members of the team he selected. It is also a serious setback to the peace process. Many in Europe cannot understand why Washington seems unwilling to exert effective pressure on Sharon to meet reasonable international concerns.

The Israeli government apparently fears and opposes international involvement in the peace process, presumably because the pressure would be on Israel to make concessions on difficult issues, such as the settlements that they have established in what must become part of a Palestinian state if there is ever to be one that is viable. They also object strongly to the internationalization of Jerusalem, which to many Europeans appears to be the only fair and sensible solution to the question of who should control the holy places so important to Christians, Muslims and Jews.

Many European observers understand and sympathize with the American determination to rid the world of the threat posed to peace by the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein in Iraq. But they also know that to ensure Arab and European support for military action against the Iraqi regime, the U.S. must win U.N. backing, and that a prerequisite for that is real progress toward a settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Unfortunately Sharon and the hardliners in Israel seem determined to prevent this. They are thus acting against the best interests of the U.S. and its friends.

It is very important that all of us who are worried about the way in which the Middle East crisis has developed and who are determined to oppose any recrudescence of anti-Semitism be careful to distinguish between the Israeli government and the Israeli people. We must also not equate Israel with Jewish people or the Jewish religion. A great many more Jewish people live outside Israel than within it.

Many Israelis regard Sharon with as much distaste as many Europeans do. Human rights supporters in the U.S. and a significant number of Jewish people are also concerned about the way things are going in Israel. They know that anti-Semitism is not dead in the U.S. Things might have changed since the 1970s, but when I was serving in Washington at that time, many clubs and societies in the U.S. would not admit a Jew. Such an attitude would have been unacceptable in Britain; today it would not only be condemned, but lead to legal action.

Despite the showing of the National Front in the French presidential elections and the occasional and utterly deplorable case of anti-Semitic vandalism in Europe, including Britain, I do not believe there has been a significant increase in anti-Semitism in Europe. Certainly any signs of this would lead to condemnation and soul-searching.

Despite the fact that President Jacques Chirac is not highly regarded by most people in France, all parties came together to make sure that far-right challenger Jean-Marie Le Pen was not elected president of France. Here in Britain, all respectable political parties have condemned the British National Party, which won three seats in a recent local election in Lancashire.

It behooves all of us to press for a fair and equitable solution to the Middle East crisis, one that will enable an Israeli and an Arab state to coexist peacefully and to ensure that anti-Semitism does not again establish a foothold in society.

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