Europeans, Israel and Palestine.

European countries have a history of differing views on the Israel-Palestine conflict. Recent disagreements among EU leaders highlight the complexity of the issue, but a political solution necessitates the involvement of various stakeholders.

The recent ‘cacophony’ of EU voices – as some defined it – over the Israel-Gaza conflict should not come as a surprise. Historically, in fact, few international issues have divided Europeans (governments and citizens alike) more than the Middle East. If the 2003 Iraq War represented perhaps the most spectacular case in point, throughout the decades Europe’s main countries have often aligned themselves differently on the Israel-Palestine dispute.

During the Cold War, particularly after the Six Days’ War of 1967, the Eastern bloc led by the Soviet Union (yet the first state to recognise Israel in 1948) sided with the Palestinians and their Arab supporters. After 1989, however, Moscow gradually developed a peculiar relationship with Tel Aviv – which included the migration of thousands of Russian Jews to Israel – while most Central European countries (some of which had not been immune to antisemitism during the XX century) shifted their support towards Israel, partially also in connection with their efforts to join NATO and later the EU. Among them, the Czech Republic would even become one of its staunchest allies, with former US Secretary of State, Czech-born Madeleine Albright, playing a key role therein.

In Western Europe, France evolved from a close friend of Israel (helping it i.a. develop its nuclear capabilities) to a fierce critic of its post-1967 occupation of Palestinian territories, in particular under De Gaulle and his immediate successors. Only under Nicolas Sarkozy (himself of Jewish origin) did the Fifth Republic adopt a more balanced position, further consolidated later on in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 2015/16 (today France is the European country with the highest number of both Muslims and Jews).

Belgium has followed a similar trajectory. Italy, too, has evolved from a mainly pro-Palestinian posture in the 1970s and 1990s (equally shared by the left and the Catholics) to a more balanced one, whereas Spain has combined unwavering solidarity with the Palestinian people with a highly symbolic ex post acknowledgement of the unjust expulsion of the Jews in 1492, offering Spanish citizenship to the descendants of the old Sephardic community.

The UK, for its part, has long struggled between, on the one hand, aligning itself with Washington (especially after the 1956 Suez crisis) and, on the other, coping with its role as the former ‘colonial’ power in the region and protecting the financial interests of the City of London (where many Gulf monarchies had stored their ‘petrodollars’).

If Ireland has always identified with the Palestinians and the Netherlands has been mindful of hosting a major Jewish community, both – along with the Nordic countries – have traditionally supported diplomacy while vocally condemning breaches of human rights and international law by either party. But key to understanding Europe’s internal differences is the German (and Austrian) position – dramatically shaped by the legacy of the Holocaust – of constant and virtually unreserved support for Israel, which often blocked more critical common statements and initiatives.

In this context, the one season where Europe found itself completely united on the Middle East was the decade between the Oslo Peace Accords (1993) and the last serious attempts to implement them, roughly 20 years ago. The European Community had actually been one of the early supporters of a reasonable deal between the two parties: its first ever common foreign policy statement was indeed the 1980 Venice Declaration, which explicitly mentioned the legitimate rights of the Palestinians to “self-determination” and of Israel to exist in security. And when that prospect suddenly became tangible, the Union – in close cooperation with the Clinton administration – threw its full weight behind the peace process.

The EU even became a formal member of the so-called ‘Quartet’ (alongside the US, the UN and Russia) that monitored and accompanied the process, and it supported the fledgling Palestinian Authority both financially and operationally, i.e. by deploying a border assistance mission to the Rafah crossing and training the Palestinian police
in the West Bank.

And when the peace process came to a critical juncture – after Itzhak Rabin’s assassination, the recurrent Intifadas and the uninterrupted Jewish settlements in the Occupied Territories – the Union engaged to play a central role in its final implementation. In the last-ditch negotiations that took place in the final months of the Clinton presidency (2000), Brussels committed to massively support Ramallah in building a Palestinian state-like entity in return for Washington supporting Tel Aviv in reining in (and compensating) the Jewish settlers and fully accepting the two-state solution.

The draft arrangement – enshrined in a famous ‘non-paper’ prepared by Miguel Angel Moratinos, the EU Special Envoy and close aide to then High Representative Javier Solana – was never finalised though, partly because of Yasser Arafat’s hesitation, but mostly because within a few weeks George W Bush succeeded Clinton at the White House and Likud’s Ariel Sharon defeated Labour PM Ehud Barak in the Israeli elections.

Ever since, the peace process was first put temporarily on ice, then overtaken (and undermined) by other developments: 9/11, the Iraq War, the conflict between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, the growth of Iran’s regional influence, the so-called ‘Arab Spring’ and the ensuing turmoil across the region, the rise of the Gulf monarchies and the re-alignment of Erdoggan’s Turkey – but also the continued expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, recurrent skirmishes between Gaza-based Hamas and Israeli forces as well as controversies and even provocations in and on Jerusalem.

In turn, Europe was hit by the so-called ‘polycrisis’, from the Eurozone woes to the migration waves (mostly from Muslim countries), the jihadist attacks and, more recently, the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. All these developments have contributed to putting the ailing peace process on the back burner – some EU countries even followed the Trump administration’s example and moved their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem – but have also had major consequences at societal level, with growing anti-Muslim/anti-migrant sentiments and recurrent episodes of antisemitism: the boom of right-wing populist parties across the continent can be seen as both a cause and an effect thereof – all duly amplified by and through the digital sphere.

Following the 2008 Russia-Georgia War, relations with Moscow replaced the Middle East as the most sensitive and controversial foreign policy issue inside the EU – at least until last year, when Russia’s blatant aggression against Ukraine quickly unified opinions and generated a surprisingly well coordinated and effective response by the Union. Does the recent ‘cacophony’ over the Israel-Gaza conflict put into question that newfound cohesiveness and decisiveness of the 27 and their declared ambition to act more “geopolitically”?

It may indeed have appeared a bad omen to see EU leaders differ in public – including at the UN – over whether to suspend or increase humanitarian aid to Palestine, over the meaning of ‘ceasefire’ as opposed to ‘pause(s)’, or over the emphasis to give to the respect human rights and international law while acknowledging Israel’s right to defend itself. Yet these differences, in part driven also by petty inter-institutional rivalries, are neither fundamental nor unsurmountable: they are not unique to Europe either, and they also run through public opinion and across political parties inside individual countries. And much will depend on the next stages in the conflict, as Europeans are understandably concerned about a possible regional conflagration and its consequences – including a further rise in energy prices, waves of refugees and terrorist actions.

Twenty years later, however, it is evident that there is no military solution to the conflict and, above all, that a political one will require the convergent and constructive engagement of not only Americans and Europeans but also the Arab countries – and especially of the Gulf monarchies, which now undoubtedly have all the necessary resources to stabilise a region in which, instead, they have hitherto played a predominantly divisive and destabilising role.

Antonio Missiroli/ISPI


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