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Gaza: What role can Europe play?

Nick Westcott / Nov 2023

Josep Borrell, the EU's Foreign and Security Policy chief. Photo: European Union, 2023

 

When Federica Mogherini first took up the role of High Representative and Vice President in 2014, she took an active interest in efforts to rejuvenate the Middle East Peace Process, effectively stalled with the petering out of the negotiations between Israel and Palestinian representatives earlier that year.

The first challenge was to get a clear position from the EU member states, then work with the Arab League and GCC members and with Israel itself to explore potential areas of flexibility.  In the event, even the first step proved problematic.  In 2015-16, the MEPP was discussed at almost every Foreign Affairs Council for six months, but it proved impossible to move the member states beyond the existing rather feeble consensus, given their divergent views.  While adhering to the priority of respecting international law and the illegality of the occupation, Israel’s supporters were reluctant to increase pressure to stop the expansion of settlements through the EU’s trade instruments, and those more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause were unable to get the talks re-started.  Despite the efforts, the EU was once more unable to revive a peace process that neither side saw going anywhere.

In practice, as so often, other crises forced themselves on the FAC’s attention – Syria above all, but also Iraq, Yemen and Libya, where actual rather than latent conflict was taking place.  With regional fires raging and migration a far higher political priority, members states were happy to leave Israel-Palestine on the back-burner.

Yet when Hamas launched its horrific attack on Israel on 7 October, the ambiguities of the EU’s position on the situation were immediately exposed by its fumbled first response.  Commissioner Vahelyi’s instant and un-consulted announcement that all aid to Palestine would be suspended brought a sharp reaction and had to be toned down to a review of all aid to ensure it did not inadvertently support Hamas.  Aid to Palestinians has now been resumed. But the strong and unequivocal support expressed for Israel by President von der Leyen and others, while wholly justified in the circumstances, has according to one insider “set back the EU’s relations with the Arab world by 50 years.”

It was left to HRVP Borrell to underline the importance of international humanitarian law as well as the right of self-defence.  Only on 15 October did the European Council finally set out an authoritative position that balanced the two elements and reiterated the EU’s commitment to a two-state solution.  But with the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza since then, positions have diverged again over calls for a ceasefire, with President Macron more forward than others in supporting the idea.

This difficulty the EU has found in articulating a clear position on Israel-Palestine has had wider repercussions for its foreign policy.  As the Ukrainian foreign minister found when he visited South Africa, a number of governments in Africa and Asia accuse Europe of hypocrisy in condemning Russian aggression in Ukraine but not Israel’s invasion and killing of civilians in Gaza.

In short, the Gaza crisis has weakened the EU’s ability to exert influence in the world in general and the Middle East in particular.  And yet its role remains vital in two ways.

Firstly, the divergences amongst members states would undoubtedly be far wider and more divisive if their leaders were not required to reach some form of consensus on policy within the Union.  This, incidentally, illustrates the dangers of moving foreign policy decisions to majority vote: for a few member states it would entirely serve their purpose to stand out from and vote against the majority, and this would be the story, not the decision of the others.  So even if the position appears feeble to some, it is at least united and enables the EU to play some role rather than none.

Secondly, the EU can be an essential participant in the search for, and support of, a long-term solution to the conflict.  It is clear that for some in the current Israeli government, including Netanyahu, there is no long-term solution, only perpetual conflict that Israel must win.  The Hamas attack both reinforced that belief and undermines its premise that this is the way to make Israel secure.  As I have argued elsewhere, Israel will never be secure until there is a political settlement.  Previous Israeli governments accepted that in order to make peace with the PLO. But that deal was never delivered, so now the problem comes round again.

The EU remains Israel’s largest trading partner, providing over 30% of its imports and taking over 25% of its exports in 2022, while EU member states have invested over €60 billion in Israel.  It is also collectively one of the largest contributors to UNRWA and of humanitarian support to Palestinians.  So it still carries economic and financial clout, and will be an essential partner for both in the future.

But politically, it can only wield influence if working in the closest possible cooperation with the US and Arab neighbours.  The limits of Arab-Islamic consensus on Gaza were revealed by the conclusions of the Arab-Islamic Summit in Riyadh on 12 November, but still their involvement is essential, especially in the light of the Abraham Accords. 

To align with these partners and bring influence to bear on both parties will require a major diplomatic effort on the part of the EU.  Its leaders therefore require a trusted envoy who can speak with their authority at a political level.  If Borrell is not in a position to play that role, they need to find someone who can.  And it requires the EU to work hand-in-glove with the US administration in devising not only potential solutions, but avenues towards them.

A solution may lie far down the path.  But we need to find the right path to head down in the first place.  The path chosen by the current Israeli government has led, all too literally, to a dead end.  The EU can help find a better one.

 

Nick Westcott

Nick Westcott

November 2023

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