EU representatives largely failed to offer a unified and clear front on both the condemnation of Israeli war crimes being committed in Gaza and calls for a cease-fire, leading to accusations of double standards
In the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attack against Israel on October 7, 2023, the European Union (EU) “condemn[ed] in the strongest possible terms Hamas and its brutal and indiscriminate terrorist attacks across Israel,” emphasized “Israel’s right to defend itself in line with humanitarian and international law” and reiterated the “importance to ensure the protection of all civilians at all times in line with International Humanitarian Law [IHL].”
Failure to offer a unified front in the EU
Yet EU representatives then largely failed to offer a unified and clear front on both the condemnation of Israeli war crimes being committed in Gaza and calls for a cease-fire, leading to accusations of double standards. The EU would be unequivocal on principles when faced with Russia’s war of aggression on Ukraine and the massive human rights violations that it has entailed, but less sturdy when IHL violations come from Israel, the argument went. Divergent narratives among EU states could also be observed. Germany has largely stuck to Israel’s right to defend itself; in contrast, countries like Spain and Ireland have been particularly vocal on the necessity for Israel to stop the offensive in Gaza and be wary of civilian casualties. Quite a few European states have also condemned attacks on Palestinians by groups of Israeli settlers in the West Bank.
In this context, EU’s Foreign Policy chief Josep Borrell has been straightforward in arguing that “It should be possible to recognize Israel’s right to defend itself, and at the same time be outraged by what is happening to civilians in Gaza and the West Bank.”
Similarly, in a resolution adopted on January 18, 2024, the European Parliament stated that “While condemning in the strongest possible terms the despicable terrorist attacks committed by Hamas against Israel,” the Parliament also “denounce[d] the disproportionate Israeli military response, which has caused a civilian death toll on an unprecedented scale,” before calling for a “permanent ceasefire and to restart efforts towards a political solution.”
Is the EU in a position to influence any political outcome in the region?
Although the EU has played a significant economic and humanitarian role in the Middle East since the 1970s, and would for sure be an important stakeholder in the implementation of any settlement, not least in the economic domain, it was never a political force. Largely sidelined by the United States and the parties to the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, the EU did not play a prominent role in the process leading to the 2020 Abraham Accords either.
Yet the Union has since the 1980s expressed its support for a two-state solution and wish for Palestine to then become a full member of the United Nations (UN).
This is in substance what the EU is now advocating, furthermore in an apparent unity. Borrell recently tabled a so-called “comprehensive approach” to “re-initiate the peace process in the Middle East”. This implies work towards a “Preparatory Peace Conference and a comprehensive regional peace plan,” taking the “two-state solution” as the ultimate objective. All EU states seem united around this long-term goal, and even Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock admitted that “The two-state solution is the only solution,” and that “those who don’t want to know about it have not yet come up with any other alternative.” And of course, US President Joe Biden has also made several calls for the two-state solution.
These signals come at a moment when the International Court of Justice ruled on January 26 that Israel must take “all measures” to prevent genocide in Gaza while stopping short of calling for a cease-fire. Israel may feel the pressure on different issues and from different sides as a consequence.
Whether this can have any effect on Israel’s course in Gaza in the short run and towards the Palestinians more generally in the longer run is very uncertain though. First, on the European side, a consensus on the two-state solution does not necessarily equate to a full backing of Borrell’s blueprint by the EU’s member states. Second, the Israelis, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to start, are today adamant that Palestinian statehood is no part of their long-term vision for the region. Third, the obstacles to the existence of two states along the 1967 (pre-Six Day-war) borders which are supposed to form the demarcation between Israel and a Palestinian state, are immense. And the wounds of the current war may well simply make the possibility of two peoples having their own territory more remote.
On the EU side, a genuine and consensual peace initiative for the Middle East would nonetheless be welcome. Not least as a way for the EU to restore some kind of credibility and legitimacy, both internally and vis-à-vis a number of external actors, in the Middle East and beyond.