24th Jun 2021

EU states competing over Israel policy

  • Brussels' Turkish community protests outside the European Commission and Council of Ministers' buildings in Brussels (Photo: Valentina Pop)

France and the UK have proposed that the EU should monitor cargo entering the Gaza strip from Israel, with Spain, Portugal and Ireland also coming forward with fresh initiatives in the wake of the flotilla attack.

"We can check the cargo of ships heading toward Gaza - we can do it, we want to do it, we would gladly do it," French foreign minister Bernard Kouchner said after a dinner with the new UK foreign secretary William Hague in London on Sunday (6 June). "The European Union must participate politically and concretely more than it already does - and it does a lot already - in the path towards peace."

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The proposal came after French President Nicolas Sarkozy telephoned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu the same day, telling him he must accept an international inquiry into the Israeli commando raid on a humanitarian aid flotilla last week in which nine activists, eight Turkish citizens and one US-Turkish citizen, were killed.

Mr Hague backed the French line, saying the bloc must show "no lack of willingness ... to participate in solutions." But he was more vague on the international probe, adding: "We think it is very important that there is a credible and transparent investigation."

In Madrid, Spanish foreign minister Miguel Moratinos said on Saturday that the bloc will in the next few days table a proposal for a lifting of the Israeli siege of Gaza.

Speaking on the margins of a meeting between MEPs and the US Congress in the Spanish capital, the minister said he had contacted the office of EU foreign relations chief Catherine Ashton regarding the matter: "We spoke with the team of the high representative yesterday and we are going to make a proposal over the next few days so that situations like the ones that happened will not be repeated."

In a sign of growing tension between Spain, the holder of the bloc's rotating presidency, and Ms Ashton's team, EUobserver has learned that her office was not in fact contacted about any such move.

The multiplication of EU voices on the issue mirrors the situation in January 2009, when the then Czech EU presidency and France sent competing peace missions to Israel in the wake of its bloody assault on Gaza.

Meanwhile, Portugal and Ireland have asked Ms Ashton to place the flotilla attack on the agenda of the next meeting of foreign ministers in Luxembourg, a request currently being considered.

Israel on Saturday peacefully captured the final ship in the flotilla, an irish vessel carrying a former UN deputy secretary general and a Nobel peace prize laureate, prompting Ireland's foreign minister, Micheal Martin, to reiterate his government's stance on the blockade. "I think there is very significant collective international pressure to lift the blockade, and I would encourage the Israeli government to reflect on what has happened and to change its policies in relation to it," he told the Irish public broadcaster, RTE.

The Israeli prime minister has also spoken on the phone to his Greek and Bulgarian counterparts, as well as UN Middle East envoy Tony Blair, US vice-president Joe Biden, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper and Georgian Prime Minister Nika Gilauri.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon on Saturday proposed an inquiry into the flotilla killings comprising representatives of Turkey, Israel, and the US, headed by former New Zealand prime minister Geoffrey Palmer, a maritime law specialist.

Israel at first appeared to reject the proposal. But an Israeli meeting of seven cabinet ministers on Sunday broke up late in the evening without reaching a conclusion on the matter, amid growing criticism of Gaza policy inside the country.

Israeli welfare minister, Isaac Herzog, said at the weekend: "The time has come to do away with the blockade, ease the restrictions on the inhabitants and find another alternative."

A group of senior Israeli naval officers in an open letter to the government called for an external inquiry into the flotilla killings. "We protest the fact that responsibility for the tragic results was immediately thrust onto the organizers of the flotilla," it said, referring to Israel's media tactics after the assault. "This demonstrates contempt for the responsibility that belongs principally to the hierarchy of commanders and those who approved the mission."

More boats?

Turkey, for its part, said that an Israeli rejection of an international investigation was unacceptable. The Lebanese newspaper, al-Mustaqbal, has reported that Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is even considering personally participating in an aid ship to Gaza.

Iran, for its part on Sunday said it may send Revolutionary Guard naval units to accompany future aid flotillas.

In the coming days, Reporters Without Borders could launch a mission, hoping to involve 25 European activists and 50 journalists on a ship leaving Beirut, according to the Guardian.

Lajos Bokros, a eurosceptic Hungarian MEP, at an internal EU parliament meeting last week reportedly proposed that MEPs should also organise an aid boat.

"If it's [European] deputies then it wouldn't be dangerous. That's the idea - they wouldn't dare shoot at deputies," French Green MEP Nicole Kiil-Nielsen, who attended the meeting, told this website. "If there are other [political] groups involved, I would go."

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