1st Dec 2023


The EU must become an honest broker again in the Middle East

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On Friday 13 October, almost a week after the horrible attacks by Hamas in Israel, a football match took place between the Netherlands and France in Amsterdam — a match preceded by difficult, political negotiations.

The idea was that before kick-off, the players would be silent for a minute for the victims of the violence in the Middle East. This would be announced through loudspeakers. Therefore, a short text was needed. The question was: what kind of text?

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  • According to polling, over half of Europeans are neither 'for' Israel nor 'for' Palestinians, but often a little for both. Among those with a strong opinion, pro-Palestinians are slightly in the majority, except in Germany

France insisted on a strong condemnation of terrorism — a reference to Hamas' atrocities. The Netherlands agreed to this. But the football federations wanted a more balanced statement, proposing to add a reference to the Palestinian victims of Israel's retaliation on the Gaza strip. By then, Israel had been bombing Gaza for days and the number of casualties on both sides was probably close to 1,500.

So, interestingly, preceding the football match in the Johan Cruijff Arena there were tense, high-level talks between two European governments wanting to condemn Palestinian violence only, and the football federations keen on condemning violence on both sides. In the end, a minute of silence was observed for "all victims".

This is just one example of the extreme divisiveness of Middle Eastern politics in Europe today: it is not just national governments taking different positions on the Israel-Palestine conflict anymore, like before, but now there is also a rift within societies between citizens who seem to take a more evenhanded position while governments are more supportive of Israel than before.

In many European capitals officials have trouble condemning both Hamas' attack and Israeli policy in the Palestinian territories at the same time — although, of course, European governments have done exactly that for decades: condemning both.

At a summit of European heads of state and government, last week in Brussels, there was not enough support for a call for a humanitarian ceasefire.

For most leaders, even a "pause" in hostilities was too much to ask.

To them, this meant giving Hamas time to regroup, which would hamper Israel's right of self-defence. As to the call for a "peace conference", possibly in Madrid (like to previous conference in the 1990s): this only made it into the summit conclusions after prolonged insistence by the Spanish EU presidency, supported by Ireland.

By manoeuvring like this, national leaders in Europe are destabilising their own societies and marginalising Europe's credibility on the world stage.

According to a poll this summer, over half of Europeans are neither 'for' Israel nor 'for' the Palestinians, but often a little for both. Among those with a strong opinion on the conflict, pro-Palestinians are slightly in the majority, except in Germany.

That positioning probably explains a widely felt unease or discomfort among European citizens about the stance of their leaders. EU Commission president Ursula von der Leyen, who went to Israel without mentioning Palestinian victims, even prompted EU officials to sign a critical petition on their own boss

There is also unease about pro-Palestinian demonstrations being banned in countries like Germany and France, as if supporting Palestinian rights is the same as supporting Hamas; about the French interior minister who accused football player Karim Benzema, who expressed sympathy for the Palestinians on social media, of having "ties with the Muslim Brotherhood"; about a vote in the UN general assembly on 27 October whereby eight out of 27 EU member states supported a humanitarian ceasefire in the Middle East, while most abstained or voted against; and about the Czech defence minister proposing that her country leave the UN after that vote, because it "has no business in an organisation that cheers on terrorists".

There was a time when European countries were honest brokers in the Middle East.

During most of the Cold War, the Soviet Union supported Arab countries while the US backed Israel. The EU took a more balanced position.

Member states were as divided as they are now, but at least their compromises landed them somewhere in the middle. The Europeans had little political clout in the region. But they had deep pockets and spoke of justice and dignity, trying to bring both sides together. It is no coincidence that after the Cold War, there was room for peace initiatives, which thanks to European mediation culminated in the Oslo Accords (1993).

To this day, the EU is still the world's largest donor to the Palestinians.

Central Europe rebalancing

But politically, the EU has slowly drifted towards Israel since 9/11. This is partly due to Islamist attacks in Europe and the accession of central European countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic, which squarely support Israel.

The war in Ukraine reinforces this trend. Since Russia's invasion in Ukraine, European governments have placed orders for large quantities of weapons from Israel. They also work hard, with the US, to draw Israel into an alliance of western democracies against Russia.

This flies back in their faces now. The same Europe that firmly condemns Russian attacks on civilian targets in Ukraine condemns Hamas when it does the same — but not Israel. This is a gift to Moscow and a disgrace to Europe that eagerly measures others by the human rights yardstick.

How much this weakens the newly-promoted 'geopolitical Europe' can be seen in the stance of the Global South. At a G20 meeting in Delhi in September, European leaders tried to convince colleagues from India, Brazil and other countries to support a statement on the importance of the UN Charter and international law.

Now these countries are confronting the Europeans with the same statement, accusing them of double standards because they have remained practically silent on Gaza for so long.

The Middle East conflict is far from a solution. But it is clear that one day, there will be negotiations again. If European governments return to the more nuanced position they once held, they could perhaps play a (modest) role in that.

It will take some time, though, to erase this stain.

Author bio

Caroline de Gruyter is an EU correspondent and columnist for the Dutch newspaper NRC. She is also a columnist for Foreign Policy and De Standaard. This piece is adapted from a recent column in NRC.


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

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