29th Feb 2024


Von der Leyen got it wrong on Israel and Gaza

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My column today represents my purely private opinion. You will understand my disclaimer because I am writing on the Israel-Gaza war.

Like many people, I care a lot about this war. Because I am German and accept that my country has a special responsibility towards Jews and towards Israel. And because I have been involved with the region for 25 years — sometimes more so, sometimes less so.

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  • The EU should insist that the never-ending story of Palestinians losing their land must end

When I worked for the European Union, 20 years ago, I was involved in negotiations between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority on holding elections. This close-up experience shaped my views.

Where to start? This is where most discussions get heated already. I will start with 7 October. It takes time for the horror of that day to really sink in. For Jews around the world and Israelis it awakened their worst nightmares and triggered historical trauma. I cannot begin to imagine how they feel. Absolutely nothing can justify the bloodbath instigated by Hamas.

The context should not influence how we judge these horrific crimes. Hamas fighters had a choice of what to do and whom to fight, when they broke through the barriers. They chose torture and the killing of countless children and civilians.

At the same time, discussing the context is not immoral, as some have claimed. Israelis discuss the context intensively, and most now blame Benjamin Netanyahu for dereliction of duty.

The context of 7 October is, of course, that Israel and the Palestinians have been fighting since at least 1948. The context is also that Netanyahu hoped to ultimately win the fight, making Palestinians an insignificant group of people with no hope of statehood.

At the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September, he showed a map on which Palestinian territories were erased — mirroring similar Palestinian maps, where Israel is gone.

EU member states, like most UN member states, agreed that there should be two states — an Israeli state and a Palestinian state — but, in recent years, they have spent less and less political time and energy defending this solution.

With a few notable exceptions, the European media lost interest in the Palestinians and failed to pay sufficient attention to the ever-expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Disinterest spread in the region as well. When Morocco, Sudan and the United Arab Emirates normalised relations with Israel, the fabled 'Arab street' did not erupt in protests. Meanwhile, Palestinians lost ever more land in the West Bank.

According to the UN almost 4,000 Palestinians were killed in the West Bank and Gaza since 2008, and 150,000 injured. Few in Europe understand life under occupation and the humiliation that Palestinians suffer on a daily basis.

Over to Brussels

Within this context, what should the EU do?

The EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen key message was unconditional support to Israel. Over 800 commission officials have expressed concern about her positioning. They have a point. It is understandable that Israel's friends offered support after the horror of 7 October, but unconditional support is not a viable geopolitical position, contradicting key values and interests of the EU.

As a body that promotes a rules-based international order, the EU cannot offer a political blank cheque when high-level Israeli officials announce blatant violations of international humanitarian law (such as energy minister Israel Katz writing that no water and electricity will be let into Gaza until hostages are freed).

Instead, it must call out such violations — as the EU's chief diplomat Josep Borrell has done (if you want to read more on the international humanitarian law, this Verfassungsblog article is a good place to start).

The EU should insist that the never-ending story of Palestinians losing their land must end. Otherwise, its position in favour of a two-state solution becomes ever more hypocritical. It should reject the idea of a new buffer zone inside Gaza, recently announced by Israel's foreign minister. And it should reject any suggestions of a massive transfer of Gazans out of their territory under the label of a humanitarian corridor. This too would completely undermine the idea of a two-state solution.

The EU should also avoid painting a big strategic picture linking the Israel-Gaza war to the Russian war against Ukraine. It is already struggling to convince the rest of the world to support Ukraine, despite Russia's systematic and crystal-clear violations of international law. Pretending the case of Israel is similar undermines support to Ukraine and provides a cheap win for Putin.

It should also avoid the notion, expressed by Biden, that Israel should be supported because it is a democracy. It is not convincing. If Israel's democracy had been a priority for the EU or the US, they would have taken a far more determined stance in recent months when Netanyahu threatened to destroy the independent judiciary.

In addition, the EU should support the UN when it demands a humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza and beyond. One cannot applaud the UN when it tells the truth about Russian torture, rape and incitement to genocide in Ukraine, but look the other way when it addresses Gaza.

In short, a 'geopolitical EU' should define its values and interests and translate them into specific positions.

For more than a decade the EU (and German governments for that matter) have confused friendship to Israel with de facto acquiescence to the policies of the successive Netanyahu governments (to the chagrin of Israeli political parties and groups supporting peace and opposing settlements), which run counter to Europe's interests and policies aimed at a political solution.

I want to conclude with a look at ourselves in Europe. Anti-semitism is on the rise. We must stand up against it in our own societies. This is not only about policies and action by the state, it is about each of us.

We must also protect our democratic values. Our governments should not try to silence opinion in Europe by prohibiting pro-Palestinian demonstrations and casting doubts on legitimate Palestinian aspirations (remember, all EU member states officially support these aspirations).

Our commitments to human rights are tested in difficult times. Let's prove that these commitments — be they for combatting anti-semitism or protecting free debate — are firm.

Author bio

Michael Meyer-Resende is the executive director of Democracy Reporting International, a non-partisan NGO in Berlin that supports political participation.


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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