The main objective of Israeli President Shimon Peres's week-long state visit to Brussels, Paris and Strasbourg March 5-12 is apparently to persuade reluctant European leaders to designate Lebanon's Hezbollah movement a terrorist organization.
Blacklisting Hezbollah would deprive the militant group of significant sources of fundraising by enabling the freezing its bank accounts and assets in Europe. It would also facilitate intra-European police cooperation aimed at pursuing and arresting Hezbollah operatives believed to be living underground throughout Europe.
Several Western countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia and the Netherlands officially classified Hezbollah as a terrorist organization years ago. But the European Union has steadfastly resisted calls to sanction Hezbollah.
EU leaders say they do not have enough information to make a judgment about whether Hezbollah is involved in terrorism. They have tried to justify themselves by saying that because the issue is legal, not moral, in nature, they need "courtroom evidence" of Hezbollah's culpability.
Well, at least that has been clarified: in recent weeks Bulgarian authorities implicated Hezbollah in the July 18, 2012 terrorist attack which killed five Israeli tourists and their driver in the Black Sea resort of Burgas.
Bulgaria's February 5 public announcement, which angered many EU countries afraid of provoking Hezbollah, was the first time that an EU member state has officially established that Hezbollah was guilty of a carrying out a terrorist attack on EU territory.
European officials have long rationalized their lack of resolve against Hezbollah by claiming that the organization has both a military wing and a political wing, and that cracking down on the former would cripple the latter, which consequently would lead to the destabilization of Lebanon as well as the broader Middle East.
Many analysts, however, say this high-mindedness is a smoke screen behind which Europeans are hiding to conceal the real reason why they are reluctant to confront Hezbollah: fear, fear and more fear.
Europeans are afraid to call Hezbollah what it is because they fear reprisals against European interests at home and abroad. Europeans also fear that if they take a hard line against Hezbollah, the group may activate sleeper cells and carry out attacks in European cities. (According to a leaked German intelligence report, there are more than 900 Hezbollah operatives in Germany alone.)
In addition, Europeans are afraid that Hezbollah may retaliate against European troops, known as UNIFIL, participating in the United Nations mission in Lebanon.
In Spain, for instance, where Hezbollah was involved in the April 1985 bombing of a restaurant near Madrid in which 18 Spanish citizens were killed, the case was closed in 1987 due to a lack of arrests.
After six Spanish peacekeepers were killed in a Hezbollah bomb attack in southern Lebanon in June 2007, a fearful Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero recruited that same Hezbollah to safeguard Spanish troops, presumably as a way to safeguard his own job.
Less than a month after those killings, it emerged that Spanish intelligence agents met secretly with Hezbollah militants, who agreed to provide "escorts" to protect Spanish UNIFIL patrols. The quid pro quo was that Spanish troops look the other way while Hezbollah was allowed to rearm for its next war against Israel.
The Spanish government recently announced that it will cut the number of its troops within UNIFIL to half by the end of 2013. What is clear is that Spain, as well as its European partners, have abandoned the letter and the spirit of UN Resolution 1559, the main objective of which was to disarm Hezbollah and to transfer effective control over the southern Lebanon to Lebanon's armed forces.
Europeans are also afraid of inciting the thousands of shiftless young Muslim immigrants in towns and cities across the continent. The fear of angry Muslims is, in fact, so pervasive in European capitals that in practical terms Islam has already established a de facto veto on European foreign policymaking.
In addition to the investigation in Bulgaria, there has also been the trial in Cyprus of Hossam Taleb Yaakoub, a captured Hezbollah operative with joint Lebanese and Swedish citizenship who is suspected of plotting attacks on Israeli targets. The trial, which is scheduled to end on March 7, has provided many insights into Hezbollah's secret operations in Europe.
Taken together, the recent cases in Bulgaria and Cyprus provide irrefutable evidence that Hezbollah is highly active in Europe, where it raises funds, launders money, traffics drugs, recruits operatives and plots attacks with impunity.
Even so, the new revelations are unlikely to cause the EU to reconsider its refusal to designate Hezbollah as a terrorist group and crack down on its fund-raising. Indeed, European officials have signaled that they desperately want to keep the peace with Hezbollah.
After Bulgaria implicated Hezbollah, John Brennan, President Barack Obama's chief counterterrorism advisor and his nominee to run the Central Intelligence Agency, urged the EU to condemn Hezbollah: "We call on our European partners as well as other members of the international community to take proactive action to uncover Hezbollah's infrastructure and disrupt the group's financing schemes and operational networks in order to prevent future attacks."
But Catherine Ashton, the European Union's high representative for foreign policy, responded without even mentioning Hezbollah by name. She said only that there was now a "need for reflection" and added: "The implications of the investigation need to be assessed seriously as they relate to a terrorist attack on EU soil, which resulted in the killing and injury of innocent civilians."
In Sweden, Foreign Minister Carl Bildt went so far as to express his anger at Bulgaria for blaming Hezbollah. In a February 5 tweet, he said: "We need to reflect seriously on consequences of Bulgaria probe naming Hezbollah as behind terrorist attack."
Only one EU country has had the courage to blacklist Hezbollah's entire organization: The Netherlands proscribed the group in 2004. In a recent statement, the Dutch Embassy in Israel said: "The Netherlands has been calling for Hezbollah to be included on the EU list of terrorist organizations since 2004, and has consistently urged its EU partners to support such a move."
If the EU is eventually shamed into adding Hezbollah to its terror list, it will probably follow the example not of Holland but of Britain.
In 2008, the British government "banned" Hezbollah's military wing after the group targeted British troops in Iraq. But the Labour government stopped short of curtailing Hezbollah's ability to operate in Britain, arguing that the military wing is separate from the political wing.
In recent weeks, British Foreign Secretary William Hague has repeatedly urged the EU to replicate the British model and outlaw only Hezbollah's military wing. Although this "fix" would allow the EU to say that it has taken meaningful action against the group, Hezbollah leaders themselves make no such distinction.
Sheikh Naim Qassem, the second in command of Hezbollah, with the title of deputy secretary-general, has rejected Britain's attempt to separate the group into military and political wings. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in April 2009, Qassem said: "Hezbollah has a single leadership. … The same leadership that directs the parliamentary and government work also leads Jihad actions in the struggle against Israel."
Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu concurred, saying: "There is only one Hezbollah, it is one organization with one leadership."
Avi Dichter, Israel's Minister of Home Front Defense and a former director of Shin Bet, had this to say: "To speak about [Hezbollah leader] Hassan Nasrallah as someone who is only political is ridiculous. … Asking if Hezbollah is a terrorist organization is like asking if Paris belongs to France. Who is sleeping? Are we Israelis sleeping or are countries in Europe sleeping? There is no debate."
Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Ron Prosor, writing in the Washington, DC-based magazine Foreign Policy, put it this way: "Calling Hezbollah a charity is like calling al-Qaeda an urban planning organization because of its desire to level tall buildings. … The EU must find the moral and political courage to place Hezbollah on its list of terrorist organizations. It must find a clear message that Hezbollah can no longer target its citizens with impunity."