Opinion & Analysis

It’s groundhog day in the Middle East – Can the EU help to get peace back on track?

Blood is once again flowing in the streets of Israel and the Occupied Territories, with many innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. The scale and intensity of the violence, with an alarming death toll on both sides, is very likely to get worse over the coming days, especially if Israel decides to mount a ground incursion into Gaza.

Diplomatic attempts to defuse the situation have begun, but as seen at the UN Security Council meeting on 8 October, there are clear differences between the US, which calls for the condemnation of Hamas and solidarity with Israel, and Russia, which is focussing on the need to revive peace talks. The wider picture, sullied as it is by disagreements on Ukraine, does not bode well for future UN-led efforts.

Europe finds itself somewhere in the middle, though many EU leaders, notably President Von der Leyen, have tacked close to the US line. It may be some time before there is space for serious negotiations on a ceasefire and, hopefully, for longer-term peace, but there is a role for the EU to play.

What next in Israel?

While the intensity and extent of the Hamas attacks and the Israeli response is unprecedented, it comes against a background of rising tensions since the fifth Netanyahu government came to power at the end of last year.

Since then, inflammatory anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian statements by far-right Government ministers, the expansion of illegal settlements and state-sanctioned settler violence, including at ultra-sensitive religious sites such as the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem, have been commonplace. At the same time, Israel has shown no serious interest in reviving the moribund peace process, and the Palestinian Authority (PA) has been marginalised. All this plays into the hands of Hamas and its allies.

For now, Israel is rallying around the flag, but sooner or later very serious questions will be asked about who is responsible for the blatant intelligence failures, and the buck may ultimately stop with Netanyahu. If so, his government could fall. If not, the prospects for any change in the destructive dynamics in the Middle East are dim at best.

Implications for the region

A wider regional conflict cannot be excluded, though it seems unlikely that actors such as Hezbollah will engage with Israel, given the problems they face at home in Lebanon.

Egypt, and to a lesser extent Jordan, have traditionally played a lead role in forging past ceasefires. Egypt in particular has a deep network of contacts with Hamas. Both countries have strong interests in maintaining stability – Egypt because of its border with Gaza and attendant fears of importing terrorism and/or refugees across it, and Jordan with over half of its population being of Palestinian origin.

They will be key players in the diplomatic efforts to come. The Gulf States could also be involved (Qatar is reportedly trying to organise a prisoner swap between Israel and Hamas), although there is little mutual trust between them and Hamas, not least because of its connections with Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood.

However, Arab countries cannot by themselves spark a new peace process that could break the cycle of violence. That requires a much wider effort by the international community, something that has been absent for a long time now.

As for Israel’s efforts to normalise relations with Arab states, the conflict will most likely put them into the freezer, especially the ongoing US-facilitated talks with Saudi Arabia. Sympathy in the ‘Arab street’ for the plight of their Palestinian brethren will be running high and their leaders will need to accommodate this.

What role for the EU?

For decades, Europeans have found it hard to accept that despite being the largest trading partner to both sides and the main donor to the Palestinians they have had to take a back seat in peace efforts.

Some of that stems from historical mistrust of Europe by both communities, but the fact is that it’s hard power that tends to have the main international clout in this conflict, which in turn has meant US primacy. Economic leverage has always been limited, as shown by the EU’s only partial success in enforcing the labelling of goods produced by Israeli settlements for the EU market.  Moreover, finding balanced common positions on the region has become more difficult in recent years as Member States like Austria and Hungary have taken strongly pro-Israeli positions.

Some Member States and Commissioner Varhelyi have discussed suspensions and/or reviews of aid to Palestine in the wake of the Hamas attacks, although this would penalise large sections of the population who have had nothing to do with Hamas’ actions. Indeed, the EU’s High Representative, Josep Borrell, has since clarified that EU aid will in fact continue.

Perhaps most significantly, the EU, concerned about cracks in the transatlantic alliance over Ukraine, is more hesitant than ever to deviate from the US approach.

But that is certainly not to say that the EU does not have skin in this game. What happens in the Middle East seldom stays there, and without a concerted effort to recreate a political horizon for peace there are concerns that extremists, both at home and abroad, could use the conflict to promote radicalisation, especially among young people – and it’s Europe which is often first in the firing line.

The EU must also be conscious of being accused of double standards vis-à-vis its stance on Ukraine, and the possibility that Russia will use the Israel-Hamas conflict to gain geopolitical brownie points with the ‘Global South’.

Borrell has previously highlighted the importance of the Aqaba and Sharm declarations for de-escalation and peace. Once the dust has settled, these could provide a foundation for renewed negotiations. The EU, which has not been a part of this process up until now, could make a push to become involved and help raise its profile and effectiveness as a negotiating partner.

However, getting Israel to engage meaningfully will require, among other things, having the US fully on board, reviving the influence and legitimacy of the PA, and most probably a successor to Netanyahu, all major challenges.

Indeed, the pledge led by former US Secretary of State John Kerry that we should ‘never again’ have to meet to discuss Gaza’s reconstruction, made at the 2014 Cairo international donors’ conference held after a previous Israel-Hamas conflagration (this author was present there) could well be broken again.

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