Saturday, 11 November 2023 12:10

The Israel-Gaza war is exposing Europe’s divisions

People gather to stage a demonstration in support of Palestinians at the Oranien Square in Kreuzberg district of Berlin, Germany, on October 28, 2023.

In late October, as the war in Gaza intensified, all 27 European Union leaders put reiterated their condemnation of Hamas’s attack on Israel and reaffirmed Israel’s right to defend itself. They also expressed “gravest concern for the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza’’ and emphasized the need for aid access, “including humanitarian corridors and pauses for humanitarian needs.”

This was supposed to be the EU’s unified stance on the conflict in the Middle East. Reaching it took five hours and was seen as so sensitive phones were kept out of the room, according to a report in Politico.

That same week, at the United Nations, Europe split on a Gaza ceasefire resolution. Countries like Spain, Ireland, and France voted for it. Germany and Italy, among others, abstained. Austria, Hungary, and Czechia all voted against. Despite Europe’s best efforts, its divisions were on display.

“It is these divisions which make it hard for the EU to take a strong, united common position,” said Martin Konečný, director of the European Middle East Project (EuMEP), an independent, Brussels-based organization. “They can agree on a position on paper, but it’s kind of a minimum common denominator, and it doesn’t allow the EU to very forcefully push for something.”

Europe, as a whole, has been traditionally seen as seeking a balanced approach to Israel and Palestine, in part because it has had to navigate different public debates and different national sensitivities. At times, this has generated more nuanced discourse, but not necessarily cohesion or authority to influence the outcome of the conflict. Europe does not offer Israel the kind of security or military aid the United States does, and so does not have the same kind of leverage as Washington there. It also lacks the full trust of Palestinians in a way that exists in many parts of the Muslim world.

Those realities existed before Hamas’s October 7 assault on Israeli civilians but are now exposed amid the current Gaza war, where Europe may be sidelined from the diplomatic debate but not from the war’s broader fallout. In recent weeks, protests and marches calling for a ceasefire have swept through European capitals. The continent has also seen a troubling spike in antisemitism. Not unlike the United States, the war is splitting Europe’s left, like France’s socialists and the United Kingdom’s Labour Party. (Even if the UK’s not officially in the bloc anymore, the country faces similar dynamics.) Some see Europe as having squandered its position as an honest broker, especially in the Global South, as its more muddled position on Gaza contrasts with its unequivocal condemnation of Russian attacks against Ukraine.

The Middle East in chaos — especially if this spirals into a larger regional war — is something Europe wants to avoid. Europe still has influence, especially as an economic power, yet at this stage, the EU is struggling to find its footing. Its big test will be whether it will continue to stumble along or potentially find some meaningful path to help mitigate the crisis.

“We have the different sensibilities within the EU, about Israeli and Palestinian concerns, so there the EU may have an advantage over other international players,” said Alexander Loengarov, senior affiliated researcher at the Institute for International Law at KU Leuven in Belgium. “The US is seen as just typically siding with Israel, and many Muslim countries are seen as just siding with the Palestinians. There may be a role for Europe to play.”

The subtle but revealing drama in European politics since October 7

In the wake of Hamas’s attack in Israel, a European commissioner named Olivér Várhelyi, from Hungary, went rogue, announcing the immediate suspension of aid to Palestine. The EU’s chief diplomat, Josep Borrell, had to do damage control soon after, insisting that aid would not be stopped, while adding that there would be a review to make sure no funds were going to Hamas — even though the EU was already confident none were.

It was not the last time Borrell would do this sort of cleanup. His boss, EU Commissioner Ursula von der Leyen, received pushback after she made an unscheduled trip to Israel in mid-October. Some reportedly bristled that she gave unequivocal support for Israel, and in expressing solidarity with Hamas’s victims, she had failed to urge Israel to follow international law in Gaza.

“The official position of the European Union with any foreign policy [issue] is being fixed — I repeat — by the [EU’s official] guidelines,” Borrell said soon after, adding that foreign policy is decided by the leaders of the EU’s 27 members.

This small rebuke was not nothing; von der Leyen is Madame Europe and has become something of a symbol of Europe globally, especially around Ukraine. Now her colleague was basically saying, “Actually, she doesn’t speak for the bloc.”

All of these were signs of the divisions unspooling at all levels within Europe: within the EU’s leadership, among the governments of individual member-states, and within those member-states’ populations. That has left Europe scrambling to find some degree of unity — or to at least paper over debates and divisions and find consensus that has exposed how marginalized European influence is in this conflict.

As experts said, Europe has never had the kind of influence or leverage the United States or regional players have had over Israel and Palestine. Most of Europe’s influence has come in shaping the discourse, using its very specific moral position as a transnational project forged in the aftermath of conflict. “The Europeans have had a somewhat more balanced position than the US and have historically taken the lead before the US on some very important positions, such as recognizing the Palestinian right to self-determination in 1980,” Konečný said.

Europe is a top international donor to Palestinian humanitarian and development aid. It has also sought to strengthen trade, technology, and security ties with Israel, especially in the aftermath of Russia’s Ukraine invasion. European courts have required produce from Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian land to be labeled as such, but it has never used sanctions (perhaps the EU’s most powerful collective foreign policy tool) to stop the expansion of Israeli settlements.

As experts told me, this kind of balancing has sometimes led to the perception among Israelis that Europe is too sympathetic to Palestinian causes, and a perception among Palestinians that it’s too strongly on the side of Israel.

A lot of this is shaped by Europe’s internal political dynamics. Germany, for obvious historical reasons, is more strongly pro-Israel. Ireland’s history of occupation and colonization has tended toward more solidarity with the Palestinian cause.

During the Cold War, support for Palestine and Israel fell along the East-West divide; many of the former Soviet bloc states still recognize Palestine as a state, even as some — such as Hungary and Czechia — have since become some of the most staunchly pro-Israel voices.

Some of this shift came after the fall of the Soviet Union, as these countries moved closer to the US and so mirrored Washington’s embrace of Israel. Some of it has strengthened in recent years as the far right rose in prominence and conservative right-wing leaders in places like Hungary have found kinship with Israel’s right-wing leadership in Benjamin Netanyahu.

Before October 7, Europe was committed to a two-state solution, though it may have fallen off as a foreign policy priority for Brussels. Some of this has been influenced by larger geopolitical dynamics, including a war on the continent. But the US’s recent lack of engagement, along with efforts under previous and current administrations to normalize relations between Israel and Arab states, including through the Abraham Accords, also deprioritized the issue in Europe.

Now the complexity and the brutality of the conflict, from Hamas’s attack and hostage-taking of Israeli civilians to Israel’s retaliation against Gaza, are revealing the tenuousness of Europe’s position. Europe, especially figures like von der Leyen, came out strongly and unequivocally for Israel. Europe, like the US, has begun calling for humanitarian pauses, but without much heft behind it. Europe is struggling, as the war continues and the civilian death toll in Gaza mounts, with how to effectively respond to Israel’s campaign.

Europe’s divisions are hindering its ability to act. That may still have unpredictable consequences.

Europe — not unlike the United States — is grappling with how its foreign policy toward Israel and Palestine is roiling domestic politics. The choices the bloc is making or not making about the conflict are shaping and exposing fault lines among and within member-states.

“I think that many of them are facing increasing internal pressure to moderate their stance and reflect more concern about the Palestinians, and where to go from from here,” said Gerald M. Feierstein, distinguished senior fellow on US diplomacy at the Middle East Institute and former State Department official.

Protests in support of a ceasefire have occurred everywhere from Spain to Germany to France to Poland. Governments in France and Germany, both of which have large Muslim populations, have attempted to limit pro-Palestinian protests, citing both security fears and concerns over anti-semitism — a legitimate and growing worry across Europe, if not always directly linked to demonstrations. The responses, though, have raised questions about limiting rights and liberties; Diana N., who works with Palästina Spricht (Palestine Speaks) in Berlin, Germany, said, especially in the early days of the conflict, people continued to demonstrate despite the risks and potential reprisals. (She asked to use her last initial only for personal security and privacy concerns.)

That may come with future political risks. Europe’s current disarray could marginalize Palestinian or Muslim populations. Europe’s left has also struggled to navigate this moment, including in places like France and the United Kingdom. Already the Israel-Gaza conflict has tested fragile left-wing coalitions in places like France and Spain. Those on the left, in particular, fear this could become a campaign issue, especially for the European parliamentary elections next year, as a weakened, disorganized left could create an even greater opening for a resurgent far right.

Some politicians in places like Belgium and Spain — two countries that have tended to be more sympathetic to Palestinian rights — have become increasingly critical of Israel’s approach. “Bombing an entire refugee camp with the intention of taking out one terrorist, I don’t think you can say that is proportional,” Belgium Prime Minister Alexander De Croo said this week.

This internal discord is also threatening to spill over into other areas, most notably Europe’s unity and message on Ukraine. Europe, and the West more broadly, have sought to rally the world to Ukraine’s side, especially in the global South, where the fallout from Russia’s invasion has exacerbated fuel and food prices in places already struggling with poverty and instability. The perception that Europe spoke with clarity on Russian attacks on civilians but has not done so in regards to Gaza has, many observers said, undermined its credibility. “Neither the US nor the EU comes out particularly well,” Feierstein said. “Both will be seen as being pretty hypocritical, frankly.”

On November 8, Charles Michel, the European Council president, reiterated Europe’s position: Israel had the right to defend itself, but it must follow international law. A total siege of Gaza was not in line with international law. In the speech, Michel tried to link the conflict back to one where Europe is on more solid ground: He proposed purchasing Ukrainian grain and shipping it to the region, saying it’s “a strong gesture of solidarity and efficiency.”

Michel also said Europe had a “role to play in building peace in the region, through our diplomacy, our convening power, our common foreign and security policy instruments, and our role as a trusted global partner.”

Europe may seek peace, but it has little ability to get there. As some experts pointed out, Europe could lay out a diplomatic pathway and could be a potential broker, but it does not have the political clout to achieve that on its own. And even if it did, its internal divisions might make that impossible. When it comes to Europe, Diana N. said, “I don’t see that they’re ever going to walk in one direction because the positions are so different.”

In October, as the EU struggled for hours to come up with a unified statement, it also proposed an “international peace conference.” Spain had pushed for it, but few inside Europe or outside it think it has any meaning. And that may be Europe’s biggest challenge on Israel-Gaza: Right now, it is mostly words.