JERUSALEM (April 18) - The Foreign Ministry is bracing for a visit to the region today by Belgian Foreign Minister Louis Michel, who in the last few months has become one of Israel's harshest and most vocal critics among Europe's leading politicians.
The visit has been called a "study tour," and comes with Belgium poised to take over the powerful presidency of the EU in July.
Michel is scheduled to arrive in Cairo today, on the first leg of a week-long Middle East tour that will also take him to Lebanon, Israel, the Palestinian Authority territories, Jordan, and Syria. He will come to Jerusalem on Sunday for 24 hours, during which he will meet, among others, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, Foreign Minister Shimon Peres, and President Moshe Katsav.
"In recent years," according to one Israeli diplomatic source, "Belgium has become one of the more problematic countries for Israel in Europe."
The reason for this stems both from the emphasis the Belgian government places on human rights in determining its foreign policy, as well as the rapidly growing Moslem population in Belgium, now estimated at about 10 percent of the country's 10 million people.
"Belgium sees everything through the prism of human rights," the source said, "of not harming the weak. And in their eyes, the Palestinians are the weaker side, and we are strong. So they feel free to come to us with complaints, complaints that they don't take to the Palestinians. When we ask them why they don't ever complain of human-rights abuses by the Palestinians, they say that we are a democracy and that they expect more from us."
The Belgian government also sees itself as very moralistic, the source said, with Michel a leading voice in Europe against Austria's Jorg Haider, and one of those who most vociferously favored sanctions against Vienna after Haider's far-right Freedom Party joined Austria's governing coalition.
"This is also part of the feeling of protecting the weak, and preserving human rights," the source said.
Regarding the growing Moslem population in Belgium, the source said that most are immigrants or children of immigrants from North Africa and Turkey, and the one thing that they are able to rally around is the issue of Jerusalem.
Michel will be accompanied by six Belgian parliamentarians and some 25 journalists, a huge retinue for a country of Belgium's size, and something that officials here believe attests to his prime-ministerial aspirations. The Belgian elections are scheduled for 2003.
The ascendancy of Belgium to the EU presidency "can cause us problems," the source said. He explained that although the EU's foreign policy is established on the principle of "one country, one vote," the nation holding the presidency can set the agenda as to what is discussed at the meeting of the EU's foreign ministers, and can initiate declarations.
"Whoever holds the presidency can go a long way toward setting the EU's foreign-policy agenda," the source said.
Another diplomatic official, however, said he is less concerned about the prospect of Belgium taking over the presidency.
"History has shown that when a country takes over the presidency, it does not exactly advocate the same policies of that of its parliament and people. It has to find a middle way, and build a consensus among the 15 member states," he said, pointing to the tenure of France in the second half of 2000 as a perfect example. For the most part, Israel was pleased with France's as EU president.
This official said that the recent history of Israel-Belgium bilateral relations shows that "when they like us, they really like us, and when they hate us, they really hate us." They really "hated us" when Binyamin Netanyahu was prime minister, the official said. He said the Belgians single-handedly held up the EU-Israel association agreement for months because they simply refused to ratify it.
They finally ratified it when Ehud Barak came into power, and then their policy toward Israel changed dramatically. The pendulum has now swung back since the onset of the intifada, with Michel among the first in Europe to raise the specter of potentially recalling its ambassador and using economic sanctions against Israel because of its policies in the territories.
In what has been described as a very difficult meeting held in February with Ovadia Soffer, then an emissary of the recently elected prime minister Sharon, Michel took him to task for Israel's "economic strangulation" of the Palestinians, "disproportionate" use of force, and "targeted" killings.
At that meeting, Michel said that there are voices in parliament - particularly among the Flemish National Party and the Green parties - calling for the recall of the Belgian ambassador to Israel because of the intifada. He said that these voices were calling on Belgium to part ways with the "neutral" polices of the EU and send a strong signal to Israel that it is using too harsh a hand in the territories. One way to send this message, he told Soffer, was by recalling the Belgian ambassador or taking economic sanctions against Israel.
"The mood in Belgium toward Israel right now is not good," one Israeli official said. "There are very few supportive voices in parliament, in the press, or in the public. In this respect we are happy about the visit now, because with Michel to become the head of European diplomacy for the next six months, he will at least be going into the job after having received solid information from Israel."