Uproarious applause echoed through the halls when Samaria Regional Council Chairman Gershon Mesika and his deputy Yossi Dagan, as well as MKs Ayelet Shaked (Habayit Hayehudi) and David Rotem (Likud Beytenu), finished their respective orations. The occasion was indeed a historic one. The European Parliament -- a stronghold for anti-settlement sentiment -- had for the first time held an official assembly dealing with the Jewish settlements of Judea and Samaria, to allow Israeli officials the chance to offer a counterpoint to the anti-Israeli line taken by European foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton.
Interestingly, the deputy chairman of the European Parliament's foreign affairs committee was the official who organized the forum. Some 20 MPs attended the event to hear Mesika and Dagan elaborate on the relationship between the Israeli people and the Land of Israel. Shaked said Judea and Samaria were "not occupied territory, but rather disputed territory."
Prior to the forum, the four Israeli representatives held marathon meetings with European MPs, checking off every MP who had joined the burgeoning campaign in Europe supporting the overall settlement movement, and especially the movement in Samaria, the northern region of the West Bank (Judea is the southern portion).
The assembly, which was organized about two weeks ago in Brussels, was the pinnacle of two years of effort by the office of foreign affairs at the Samaria Regional Council. During this time, the council hosted more than 70 MPs from European nations, several U.S. congressmen and more than 100 foreign journalists and influential bloggers.
"Our goal was to combat delegitimization attempts and boycotts against Israel and to arrest funding to extremist left-wing organizations by the European Union. Actually, Israel's problem today is that there exists an official public relations vacuum," said Dagan.
"We reached a conclusion that the very same radical left-wing organizations in Israel spreading settlement hatred were also spreading Israel hatred across the globe," said Mesika.
The Samaria council's foreign relations office has launched a rigorous campaign over the last several years, leading thousands of guided tours through the hilly region of Samaria. The initiative was started more or less five years ago. Dagan, one of the founders of the Sa-Nur settlement in northern Samaria -- demolished during the disengagement -- struggled to understand why Israel insisted on evacuating settlements in northern Samaria while concurrently tightening its grip on security in the area.
"I reached the conclusion that ignorance is the settlements' greatest enemy. Many people don't know the area and don't know that just a few minutes' drive from Tel Aviv they could be deep in Samaria," he explained.
The first project that the council initiated were VIP tours. The council has led some 800 tours for prominent figures, journalists, publicists, commentators, MKs and ministers -- not just those on the Right but also those in the Center and on the Left. Mesika and Dagan understand that not everyone who visits Samaria and takes the tour is easily converted to their cause. But the two believe that the Samaria tours trigger a change in an individual's perception. They said most people leave with the understanding that the situation in the territories is irreversible, and this is exactly what they are trying to achieve.
"After we saw that everyone who comes to the territories sees things with their own eyes and begins to understand the complexity that exists here, we said to ourselves that we also need to bring the greater public, so we established the 'Samaria, Nice to Meet You' project, which is directed mainly at the secular Israeli public," Mesika said.
The overwhelming success of the tours and the subsequent demand led Mesika and Dagan to believe that the same ignorance among Israelis over the settlements also existed abroad, fed and fanned by the international media and anti-Israel organizations.
In addition to the tours the council organized for European parliamentarians, the two decided to establish an office of foreign affairs -- an international umbrella organization amalgamating three separate associations functioning in Israel, Europe and the U.S. The office's mission was to promote the status of Israel and its borders in an international campaign. The office decided to appoint Shay Attias as the organization's chairman.
Attias is young, secular and ambitious. He holds a graduate degree in public diplomacy from Harvard and was one of the founders and head of the public diplomacy department in the Public Diplomacy and Diaspora Affairs Ministry. He has said that one of the organization's main goals is to connect directly with the international public and its leaders while bypassing the international media and anti-Israel organizations. Tours for European parliamentarians and American congressmen were the fruits of these efforts.
"Today, we are in an era where people love to read Facebook-like headlines, less history and facts," said Attias. "Therefore, when we tried to explain to the world that Samaria is not occupied territory according to more than 10 different legal conventions, with the aim of penetrating different audiences, we developed, in the council, a new concept based on a renewed public-relations approach, where, in the process, [individuals] meet with 'real' residents without mediation and without messages or propaganda."
Delegation members, dressed in their best, met before the confab with some 12 parliamentarians including the deputy chairman of the sub-defense committee and members of the foreign affairs committee. They even held a brief and rare meeting with Foreign Affairs Committee of the European Parliament Chairman Elmar Brok.
Mesika and Dagan presented the European officials with a tablet showing the map of Israel, emphasizing Israel's narrow waistline -- just 15 kilometers (9 miles) from the Mediterranean Sea to the Green Line -- and adding that the width of Samaria from the 1967 line to the Jordanian border is 55 kilometers (34 miles).
The highlight of their trip to Brussels was the assembly where Mesika, Dagan, Rotem, Shaked and David Veltser, the Israeli envoy to European institutions, spoke. The speakers made sure to focus on the serious damage that could result from Ashton's new guidelines, which called for settlement products to be labeled and boycotted.
MK Rotem told attendees that "labeling products could actually cause serious damage to tens of thousands of Arab industrial workers." He said thousands of Palestinians were employed in Judea and Samaria's industrial zones and hurting these factories could cause a fatal blow to Palestinians who need this work to feed their families.
MK Shaked called the guidelines "anti-Semitism." She said the guidelines "didn't help. They just hurt Israel and the Palestinians."
Mesika said the European Union had some profound soul-searching to do because of the "attitude toward the Jewish people, especially in recent times. The old, ugly anti-Semitism is masquerading today as anti-Israelism."
"In everything related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the European Union has decided to side in a concrete way with the Palestinians, without taking stock of the suffering of the Jewish people. Is it right to bring about Israel's extinction and try to force it to give up on the region? The State of Israel cannot concede Judea and Samaria," Mesika declared.
Dagan joined Mesika, saying, "The state cannot exist with a 15-kilometer width -- the length of an average street in a European capital." He mentioned the funding that extreme left-wing organizations receive from the European Union, which he said amounts to tens of millions of euros every year. He concluded by saying, "If Arab nations lay down their arms, there won't be any war. If Israel lays down its arms, there won't be any Israel."
Several European MPs left the confab saying they were unequivocally opposed to the boycott of the settlements and the new guidelines, which have yet to be legally approved through a European parliament vote. One MP called the guidelines "catastrophic." Others said they would work toward greater transparency in the European funding of the Palestinian Authority and left-wing organizations.