Divisions and Dilemmas over Gaza

Pro Palestinian protest in front of European Commission's regional office in Barcelona

Patrick Costello on the European Union members’ failure to maintain a united front on Gaza and calling for a ceasefire.

While readers of the British press may be given a different impression, the eruption of violence in Israel and Palestine has not only been a source of division and controversy in the Labour Party:  EU policymakers have also struggled to maintain a united front.

Historically, Europe has played an important role in the international efforts to broker peace in the Middle East. The first direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians took place at the Madrid conference in 1991, which in turn led to the back-channel negotiations resulting in the Oslo accords. Throughout the tortuous negotiations of the following decades, the EU played an important role in ensuring that the Palestinians had a trusted international interlocutor in the room to balance the role played by the Americans in relation to Israel. Alongside this political role, Europe was the major funder of the Palestinian Authority created by Oslo as the nascent government of a future Palestinian State. In parallel, the EU maintained close if critical relations with Israel.

Given this history, the early response of the European Commission to the Hamas terrorist attack on 7 October came as a shock in Europe and beyond. The unconditional solidarity with Israel expressed by President Von Der Leyen was swiftly followed by a statement by her Hungarian Commissioner Oliver Varhelyi suspending all EU aid to the Palestinians. Public anger that all Palestinians were to suffer the consequences of the Hamas attack resulted in a quick climb down (within the same day) to a temporary suspension of payments pending review into whether any of the funds were being diverted to Hamas.

The Commission President then doubled down, following in the footsteps of Joe Biden to visit Tel Aviv six days after the Hamas attack, with the bombardment of northern Gaza underway. There she publicly aligned herself on behalf of the EU with the early US position that Israel has a right to defend itself without limitations. She said nothing about the humanitarian consequences on Palestinian civilians of Israel’s retaliation. This provoked an unprecedented petition of over 800 EU civil servants protesting her position on the conflict.

A remarkable aspect of this was that there had been no consultation of EU Member States; any changes to EU foreign policy positions require unanimous agreement. The first statement from the EU Heads of State emerged only on 15 October and was clear in stating that Israel’s right to defend itself should be conditioned by respect for international humanitarian law.

Since then, some of the damage has been undone, although Member States have wrestled with the same debates as the UK and US over whether to call for a ceasefire, a humanitarian pause or humanitarian pauses. Foreign policy chief Josep Borrell has engaged in some effective shuttle diplomacy across the region and shifted the focus onto the responsibility to invest in brokering a political solution to the conflict. The EU Heads of State have called for an international peace conference, and no European leader now refers to Israel’s right to defend itself without the obligatory reference to international humanitarian law.

Nevertheless, the issue has continued to foster European divisions: on 28 October, EU Member States split three ways in a vote on the humanitarian situation in Gaza at the UN General Assembly. Accusations of double standards are being thrown at Europe from all over the world comparing the response to Gaza with the response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine and as the death toll rises, reluctance to call out Israel’s abuses of international humanitarian law remains strong.

To understand why this has been so divisive and difficult for Europe, Ukraine provides a clue. Supporting Ukraine has required an extremely close alignment of both policy and messaging between Europe and the US to the point where it has become almost a reflex to align with the US even when it is unhelpful to do so. Washington initially tried to frame the Hamas attack on Israel as another example of an attack on a democratic State. This was quickly dropped as the absurdity of comparing the Russian colonising mission in its former empire with a terrorist action by a group of occupied Palestinians was recognised. However, many European leaders had already jumped the gun and the EU has continued to follow the twists and turns of the Biden administration position on a crisis where Europe’s distinctive role is needed.

Some in Brussels are speculating that Von der Leyen’s actions on Gaza are also a sign that she is not seeking a second mandate as Commission President: it looks to some as though she is more concerned about aligning with Washington than with the EU Member States who would choose her. Perhaps, the story goes, she is aiming instead to be the first woman secretary general of NATO.

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