EU foreign affairs ministers on Tuesday will discuss the seemingly urgent question of what their governments and Brussels can do to help end the latest deadly violence between Israel and the Palestinians, which has been raging for more than a week. But top officials, diplomats and experts on the Middle East say the answer has been known for years: nothing.
Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, convened the special videoconference of ministers after issuing repeated statements in recent days imploring an end to the rocket fire against Israeli civilians by Hamas, and urging that Israel “act proportionately and avoid civilian casualties.”
But EU countries have long been ferociously divided over the Israel-Palestine question, as was clear on Sunday when the EU ambassador to the United Nations, Olof Skoog, delivered a statement to the Security Council condemning the violence but was prevented from speaking “on behalf of its member states.” Hungary, an ally of Israel, blocked the statement.
Borrell, similarly, is often forced to issue statements on the Israel-Palestine conflict without the unanimous endorsement of the 27 member countries, effectively leaving him to speak for himself. Without national capitals on board, the EU is impotent on foreign policy.
The result is that as civilian casualties mount, the EU is once again betwixt and between the combatants. Israel is demanding stronger, unequivocal support from Brussels as a fellow democracy, and condemnation of Hamas, which is already designated in the EU as a terrorist group. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are accusing the EU of turning a blind eye to violations of international law, and decades of territorial occupation and rights abuses.
In terms of geopolitical influence, it means the EU is nowhere to be found.
“In the European Union, what is difficult is to find a full consensus on Israel,” Javier Solana, a former NATO secretary-general and former EU high representative for common foreign and security policy, said in an interview for POLITICO’s EU Confidential podcast that will air Thursday.
“[There] never has been a clear consensus about Israel and particularly when the situation is like this,” Solana said. “But we should be able to do something … for helping the people, which are now suffering.”
Borrell, who like Solana is a former foreign minister of Spain, is hoping that Tuesday’s videoconference will at least yield consensus on a forceful statement aimed at halting the worst violence in years, and contain its risk of escalation. But other officials and diplomats said the meeting could do little more than put a greater spotlight on the EU’s hopeless discord.
Among the 27 member countries, Belgium, Ireland, Sweden and Luxembourg are among those most critical of Israel. Countries in Eastern Europe, especially Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, are among those in strongest support of Israel, though in recent days the flag of Israel has flown prominently over the HQ of Germany’s biggest governing party and official buildings in Austria and the Czech Republic in a show of support. Greece and Cyprus have also grown closer to Israel in recent years, partly because of tensions with Turkey.
France typically seeks to stake out more neutral ground, but President Emmanuel Macron’s office has issued statements in recent days that tilted decidedly toward Israel. The Elysée’s statements “firmly condemned rocket launching claimed by Hamas and other terrorist groups targeting the Israeli territory,” but were vaguer when referencing Israeli bombing.
On that, they said Macron had given his condolences to “the many Palestinian civilian losses resulting from military operations and ongoing clashes with Israel.” Macron also reiterated his “unwavering attachment to Israel’s security and its right to defend itself in line with international law,” but failed to reiterate his support for the rights of Palestinians, or recall the status of Jerusalem under international law, in line with France’s historic position.
This round of clashes was set off after disputes over attempts by Israeli settlers to forcibly evict Palestinians from a neighborhood in Jerusalem, and heavy-handed Israeli police intervention in the Al-Aqsa mosque. Hamas seized upon these incidents to launch a barrage of rockets at Israeli cities; Israel responded with heavy bombing of the Gaza strip.
Israel’s deputy ambassador to the EU, Walid Abu Haya, said in an interview Monday that Brussels needed to step up its support of a democratic ally under terrorist attack.
“What we want from Europe is very strong and unequivocal support,” Abu Haya said. “The EU cannot just play the game of trying to balance here. The situation is not balanced. All members have declared Hamas as a terror organization.”
He said Israel would be monitoring Tuesday’s Foreign Affairs Council meeting but that in any event, it would defend itself as long as necessary with or without the EU’s backing.
“All efforts should be done now just to stop this terror,” he said. “Israel’s intentions are very clear. We are not stopping, we are going until we put an end to this attack by Hamas.”
While Israel is confident of support from allies such as Germany, it has less faith in Borrell, who has criticized Israel in the past, including in a statement at the end of April that suggested Israel was obstructing elections from being held in the Palestinian territories. EU officials said Borrell had a “frank” conversation with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi that included concerns about civilian casualties and a disproportionate military response.
An EU spokesman said at a news conference Monday that Borrell’s hope was for ministers to agree on steps to help halt the violence and to move toward a resumption of peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians.
But Borrell’s social-democrat political family has also been critical of Israel, while demanding an end to the violence.
“We believe that the EU must take its responsibility and facilitate peace and a long-lasting solution, and not only the EU but also the international community should speak out and put an end to the Israeli occupation and work for a two-state solution,” Utta Tuttlies, spokeswoman for the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group in the European Parliament, said at a news conference.
But Tuttlies also noted the EU’s difficulties in finding a unified position. “We call on the EU and the international community to assume their responsibility and also on the EU to speak up with one voice to stop the violence,” she said.
In the podcast interview, Solana said the EU had to find a way to get beyond bland statements and that calls for negotiations between the two sides were unrealistic at the moment. He said Tuesday’s meeting of foreign ministers should at least try to achieve “some mobilization” on the humanitarian front, to alleviate the suffering of those most affected by the conflict.
But many diplomats, officials and experts said the EU’s best chance for influence in the Middle East was more likely to come from France, which after Brexit is the EU’s only permanent member of the U.N. Security Council.
On Monday, Macron met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Paris.
France doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Hamas, and has been backing Egyptian mediation between Hamas and Israel. But no timeline for an end to hostilities has emerged, and there have been no calls for an “immediate ceasefire” or plans for a more limited humanitarian lull, mainly because Israel is not ready to stop military operations yet.
Instead, both presidents “agreed to continue coordinating to foster a quick ceasefire.”
On Thursday, Macron spoke to Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, who has no leverage over Hamas or East Jerusalem. But in a sign of France and Europe’s second-tier role in the conflict, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “was not available for a phone call that day,” according to Macron’s office. The two spoke on Friday. Netanyahu found the time to speak to U.S. President Joe Biden on Wednesday.
French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian has been engaged in intense diplomacy, discussing the situation with his American, Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian and Egyptian counterparts.
In a statement on May 10, the spokesperson of the foreign ministry said “France is vividly concerned by threats of forcible evictions targeting residents of the neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah in East Jerusalem, which are part of the settlements policy that is illegal according to international law,” and reiterated France’s “attachment to the preservation of the historic status quo at the Al Aqsa Mosque compound.”
At Monday’s news conference, Peter Stano, a spokesman for the European Commission, said the EU regarded Israeli settlements in the occupied territories as illegal and that Brussels had also urged reconsideration and restraint in regard to threatened evictions.
Stano said the main goal, though, was to end the military conflict.
“The representatives of the European public, the ministers of foreign affairs in this case, are trying very hard to deal with the situation and find the best possible contribution by the EU to de-escalate and stop the violence,” he said. “And I think that’s it. I can only repeat that of course the casualties are unacceptable.”