Muriel AsseburgSenior Fellow in the Middle East and Africa Division of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs
The EU and its member states can do little to mediate a cessation of violence between Israel and Hamas due to their self-imposed no-contact policy toward Hamas.
But they can contribute to de-escalation by addressing the security needs, rights, and religious feelings of both populations rather than framing the conflict mainly as one between Israel and a terrorist organization, in which they take Israel’s side.
What is more, they can support ending impunity for war crimes and crimes against humanity by backing the International Criminal Court’s investigation into suspected crimes committed by both Palestinian armed groups and Israel rather than trying to undermine the court’s work.
In order to avoid the cyclical recurrence of conflict, Europeans can support a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. That would need to be accompanied by a significant easing of the blockade of the Gaza Strip, through offers such as engagement for a much-needed revision of the Gaza Reconstruction Mechanism and an upgraded EU Border Assistance Mission.
Last but not least, Europeans can decide to employ the leverage that they possess over the Palestinian Authority, Hamas, and Israel—through aid, recognition, trade, and cooperation—to push for a halt to violence and to Israel’s settlement and displacement policy in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The Europeans should use this leverage to support a return to the agreed status quo regarding the Temple Mount or Haram al-Sharif and to ensure the protection of human rights of all inhabitants in Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Nathan BrownNonresident Senior Fellow in the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
To ask if Europe can de-escalate the fighting is to pose the wrong question at the wrong time. In the vicious combat between Israel and Hamas, Europe, like most potential mediators, has few cards to play and ties with only one side.
But imagine if the question had been posed a week ago, when the conflict was over Israeli evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem—or a month ago, before Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas cancelled elections?
Europe’s options over the latest instance of ethnic engineering in Jerusalem may have been limited. But the tepid backing for elections did have an effect on various actors’ calculus. A muscular international framework—such as that shown for the 2006 Palestinian balloting—might have averted the slide to the current violence.
Should European leaders react to the current fighting by cheering on a ceasefire and then calling for a resumption of chimerical two-state diplomacy, they would be politely ignored in public at best—and derided in private by almost all actors.
Should they choose instead to describe and decry the current reality and back a more honest set of discussions, they may help move beyond de-escalation to realistic long-term diplomacy.
Zaha HassanHuman Rights lawyer and Visiting Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
The EU, once perceived by Palestinians as a counterweight to Washington—which over the years has deprioritized international law and multilateralism on matters related to Israel’s 53-year-old military occupation—is officially irrelevant on peacemaking.
The union has been unable to even muster a call for a ceasefire between Hamas and Israel during the current violence. This, despite the overwhelming and disproportionate force used by Israel against the captive civilian population of Gaza. They are unable to flee from the Israeli bombardment. They have lost their top doctor on the coronavirus response team and the only coronavirus testing center in the Strip.
As Gazan apartment buildings were being reduced to rubble, the Netherlands, the seat of the International Criminal Court, issued a statement to condemn Hamas. Austria and Slovenia ordered the Israeli flag to be flown over state buildings. EU High Representative Josep Borrell reaffirmed Israel’s right to self-defense, within the confines of proportionality. European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen tweeted a pithy statement singularly focused on Hamas’s indiscriminate rocket fire.
Meanwhile across Europe, in capitals, cities, and smaller towns, civil society came out in their many thousands to mark the anniversary of the 1948 Palestinian dispossession and to express their solidarity particularly with Palestinian families in Jerusalem who are being forced from their homes a second time in favor of Jewish settlers.
For Palestinians, as the light dims on EU action, it shines brighter on international civil society mobilization. That might be the better bet for a change in EU policy.
Kristina KauschSenior Resident Fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States
Not much. Stopping rockets is not Europe’s strong suit. Calls and statements by European leaders, expressing unease with the death toll and asking for airstrikes to stop soon, please, underline the awkwardness of the bystander.
The Twitter account “Is EU Concerned?” with 23,000 followers is busy quoting EU leaders’ qualified concern as the sarcastic epitome of European foreign policy toothlessness. Hungary’s fresh blocking of a joint EU statement on May 18 made a mockery of EU crisis diplomacy. This has to stop.
But then, a ceasefire is not a policy. European governments are right to stress the urgency of addressing the causes of tension if this macabre loop of conflict-mediation-aid-blockade-tensions-conflict—in which Europe plays the role of the post-rocket paymaster—is to be broken. But how do they conceive an opening while clinging to the same talking points for decades which, if anything, have tacitly helped to entrench the roots of conflict?
Something is moving though. Slowly, international discourse is shifting toward a more nuanced acknowledgement of Palestinian rights and identity. A remark by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken last week sparked speculations that Washington might be considering a shift to a rights-based approach that puts equality at the top. But shifting discourse requires breaking taboos—a risk to career and political climate that not many in Europe are willing to take.
Amichai MagenDirector of the Program on Democratic Resilience and Development at the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya
Sometime between 2008 and 2016, the Israeli policy establishment stopped seeing the EU qua EU as a significant political actor in the Middle East.
For Israel, “Europe” returned to being a continent of nation-states: some friendly—Austrians, Czechs; some ambiguous—Germans, Italians, and more recently the Greeks and Bulgarians; some hostile—Ireland and Sweden when under the Social Democrats; and others in various shades of correct relations.
Brussels, which had a modest yet significant role from the 1994 Oslo Accords and the 1995 Barcelona conference roughly to the end of the second intifada and the second Lebanon War in 2006, lost the modicum of influence it once wielded.
Why? Firstly, the EU lost its shine as a model for supranational governance, especially after the series of crises that afflicted the EU from 2008 onward.
Secondly, by joining the OECD, Israel was provided with access to a wider, desirable club of prestigious democracies.
Thirdly, the lack of progress in the upgrading of EU-Israeli ties led to Israel losing interest in these relations from 2008 onward.
In addition, Israel perceived Europe as becoming increasingly anti-Semitic and hostile to Israel, especially around the labeling of products from Judea and Samaria. Europe’s appeasement of Iran and the Europeans’ role in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) also angered Israel.
Other factors to consider are the reduced regional and global priority of the Palestinian issue, particularly after the failure of the Arab Spring in 2011, and the productive relations Israel had with former U.S. president Donald Trump’s administration—which Europe despised.
Finally, there is the complete lack of European presence in support for the achievement of the Abraham Accords and wider normalization of ties with pragmatic Sunni Arab states.
The cumulative outcome of the above: mainstream Israel today does not consider the EU as a meaningful actor in the region.
Khalil ShikakiProfessor of Political Science and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research
Despite its huge economic and political interests in the region, Europe has been extremely reluctant to lead the efforts in Palestinian-Israeli conflict resolution. Without a unified position of its own, Europe finds it safer to defer to the United States.
Constrained by history, European major powers can only help sustain the status quo, not change it. Despite a declared commitment to international law, other interests make Europe complicit in the daily Israeli violations of international law.
Granting Israel an unlimited right to self-defense while treating Hamas as a terrorist organization eliminates Europe’s ability to use leverage to help de-escalate the current Palestinian-Israeli military confrontation or to see Israeli bombardment of Gazan civilian targets as crossing the line between self-defense and war crimes.
Let us face it: Europe lacks the courage to stand up for its own ideals or even protect its own interests.
If it had such courage, it would have easily forced Israel to stop changing the status quo on Muslim holy places, stop the eviction of Palestinian families in Sheikh Jarrah, and allow Palestinian elections in East Jerusalem. If it had courage, it would have made Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas go ahead with elections. Failing to do either of those led to the current wave of violence.
Shimon SteinInternational consultant and former Israeli ambassador to Germany
The EU is doing what it almost always does during crisis times—and not only in the Middle East. It is issuing declarations employing the usual vocabulary that is used on occasions such as the current clash between Israel and Hamas.
Let’s face it. None of the parties are terribly impressed by the statements. Unfortunately for the EU, with no meaningful leverage, no party is deterred by EU statements.
Yet consider the conversation on May 17 between the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the EU High Representative Josep Borrell. There was the affirmation of the “crucial role the U.S.-EU partnership plays in the region, as well as the U.S. commitment to continue consultations.”
This could signal a new transatlantic determination to cooperate in a neighboring region, which the EU defines as vital to its interests.
As urgent as the efforts to reach a ceasefire are, the crucial question relates to the day after. Beyond the lip service constantly paid by the EU to achieving peace and stability in the region, will the EU devote political as well as economic and financial resources for a long-term project of helping the parties to use the current crisis as an opportunity for a change?
If not, the end of the current round will most certainly be the beginning of the countdown to the next round.
Tommy SteinerSenior Research Fellow at the Institute for Policy and Strategy at IDC Herzliya
No. This is particularly true if we focus on the current crisis. Europe has no leverage over Israel or Hamas. Furthermore, Hamas is a designated terrorist organization with which Europe cannot—and should not—engage.
More notable, however, is the strategic absence of Europe from the Middle East, part of its so-called neighborhood. This is not only a question of divergent positions and interests among EU members.
Rather, it seems that European decisionmakers have concluded that most crises emerging in this part of the world have limited impact on Europe. Meanwhile, Europe has learned to use money to mitigate the effects of crises that could cause harm.
Honestly, from an Israeli perspective, this is not all bad. As long as mainstream Europe thinks in moral equivalent terms about Hamas firing rockets and mortars intentionally towards Israeli civilians and Israeli armed forces seeking to thwart Hamas terror infrastructure, Europe is better off on the sidelines.
I am sure many Europeans are uncomfortable with the different ratio of fatalities—that Israel is killing more Palestinians in Gaza than Hamas is killing Jews. There is a simple explanation. Over the past fifteen years, Israel has invested huge amounts of money to protect its civilian population. Hamas, however, has chosen to invest in producing rockets and mortars and building an underground maze of 1,000 km of terror tunnels. So much for moral equivalence.
Nathalie TocciDirector of the Istituto Affari Internazionali
The sad truth is . . . not much today. As death and destruction mount, the immediate priority is to induce a ceasefire. To do so, Europeans would need to have and be willing to use leverage.
In one case—with Hamas—Europeans have no leverage. Since the 2006 strategic blunder of not recognizing the results of the now far-too-distant Palestinian elections, the EU has persisted with its no-contact policy with Hamas. This generated costs for Hamas and Palestinians in Gaza back in 2006, but today those costs have been absorbed.
In 2021 the EU’s no-contact policy with Hamas boils down to no leverage on Hamas, period.
With Israel, it’s a different matter. Here the EU potentially does have significant leverage given the depth and breadth of economic relations. But Europeans have been consistently unwilling to even discuss, let alone use those ties.
Europeans, as indeed the region and the international community, has tolerated, and as such, has been complicit in the progressive entrenchment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the systematic violation of rights it has entailed.
At each periodic outburst of violence, we have watched aghast, wondering what to do. The recipe remains the same: acquiring—in one case—and using—in the other—leverage on the parties. The question is whether the 2021 cycle of violence will generate a sufficient push for Europeans to reorient policy toward tangible measures rather than concentrating on diplomatic calls and hollow statements.