Conjuring Trick

Addressing the neoconservative Hudson Institute on 20 October, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen stressed the importance of ‘sheltering democracy’ – a nod to Ronald Reagan – from those who seek to destroy it. The twin crises in the Middle East and Ukraine, she said, ‘call on Europe and America to take a stand and to stand together . . . Vladimir Putin wants to wipe Ukraine from the map. Hamas, supported by Iran, wants to wipe Israel from the map’. The conflicts were, ‘in essence, the same’. Her remarks were in lockstep with Joe Biden’s speech the previous day, in which he claimed that Hamas and Putin ‘both want to annihilate a neighbouring democracy’. By tying together these two nemeses, von der Leyen and Biden hoped to conjure the same spirit of unity seen at the outset of the Ukraine war – when ‘Western values’ were supposedly engaged in an existential struggle with their opposite. As Oded Eran, the former Israeli ambassador to the EU, once put it, Europe is ‘the hinterland of Israel’, and Israel an outpost of Western Judeo-Christian civilization.

Yet recent weeks seem to have revealed a confounded disunity in Europe – one much remarked upon in the Western press. Each day brings a new round of conflicting official statements, briefings and counter-briefings. After von der Leyen’s visit to Israel on 13 October, during which she pledged Europe’s full support for Tel Aviv, she was criticized by EU colleagues who complained that she had failed to consult them about the trip and neglected to remind Netanyahu about the supposed salience of human rights. As Israel cut off water, food and fuel to Gaza, the Commission announced that it would freeze aid payments to Palestinians lest they fall into the hands of ‘terrorists’. Again, a chorus of EU foreign ministers objected, and the decision was reversed within a matter of hours. Similar tensions appeared to be on display on 27 October, when European delegates gathered for a UN vote on whether to call for ‘an urgent, durable, and permanent humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza’. Austria, Hungary, Czechia, and Croatia voted against; Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Sweden abstained; and Belgium, Ireland, France, Luxembourg, Malta, Portugal, Slovenia, and Spain voted in favour.

Some European leaders have repeatedly contradicted their own positions on the war. In a thinly veiled attack on von der Leyen, EU foreign policy lead Josep Borrell asserted that ‘Israel has the right to defence, but this defence has to be developed in compliance with international law’. Shortly after, though, he appeared to give full backing to the Israeli war aims, insisting that Hamas must be eliminated ‘as a political and military force’ – heedless of the civilian cost. In an interview with Al-Jazeera, Borrell was asked whether the Hamas attack was a war crime, and replied unambiguously ‘yes’. When asked whether the ongoing Israeli assault on Gaza was one, he said ‘I’m not a lawyer’. 

Emmanuel Macron has also sent opposing signals since 7 October. He has wrung his hands over the mounting death toll and rejected the notion that ‘we want to fight terrorism by killing innocent people’. Speaking to the BBC, he lamented the growing number of children pulverized by Israeli air strikes and urged Netanyahu to halt the campaign – becoming the first G7 leader to call for a ceasefire. Yet after a furious response from Israeli officials he was forced to row back on his remarks. Alongside his pleas for peace, Macron has also proposed the creation of an international military coalition against Hamas – whom, he says, must be fought ‘without mercy’. His staffers rushed to clarify that this would not necessarily imply French boots on the ground. An anonymous French diplomat summarized Macron’s position as ‘one day pro-Israeli, the next pro-Palestinian’.

Among member states, Ireland has perhaps been most vocal in its criticism of Israel, with Leo Varadkar insisting that ‘Israel doesn’t have the right to do wrong’. In contrast to the Commission, his government has consistently advocated for a ceasefire and pledged to push for EU sanctions against West Bank settlers. But here the gap between rhetoric and policy is cavernous. When Sinn Féin and the Social Democrats introduced parliamentary motions calling for the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador, the imposition of sanctions and the referral of Israel to the ICC, Varadkar rejected each of them out of hand. Since then, evidence has emerged that the US may be using Dublin’s Shannon Airport to transfer arms to Israel. Records from the Department of Transport indicate that since October there has been an unusually high volume of civil munitions exemptions – the most since 2016, and an increase of 42% from the previous month. Yet the government refuses to address the issue, and it has voted down a motion to prohibit American troops from using the airport.

A similar dynamic is unfolding in Spain. Fresh from reelection, Prime Minister Sánchez has vowed to work towards the international recognition of a Palestinian state. He has cast doubt on Israel’s compliance with the laws of war and described its assault as ‘disproportionate’. In a speech to the European Parliament this week, he declared that ‘it is time to speak openly about what is happening in Israel and Palestine’. But when members of Sánchez’s cabinet ‘speak openly’, he takes a somewhat different approach. The Podemos leader Ione Belarra went further than any other Spanish politician in accusing Israel of ‘genocide’ and calling for Netanyahu’s indictment on war crimes charges. Soon after, she was sacked from her role as Social Rights Minister. Beneath Sánchez’s soundbites about protecting civilians, his government fully backs the extirpation of Hamas and the return of the Palestinian Authority to Gaza – presumably, on the bayonets of the IDF.

Germany, of course, remains unwilling to countenance any meaningful criticism of Israel. It has imposed stringent censorship on Palestinians and those supportive of their cause – using blunt force to repress peaceful solidarity marches in its major cities. Some Bundesländer are considering making ‘recognition of Israel’s right to exist’ a requirement for citizenship. This is hardly a surprise, given the country’s enduring Holocaust guilt as well as its ultra-Atlanticist orientation since the Zeitenwende. Green Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock can be relied on to parrot the White House position on both Ukraine and Palestine: full-scale militarized opposition to one occupation; unflinching material support for the other. She maintains that a ceasefire is unconscionable as it would only help Hamas. Yet even she has moderated her line in recent weeks: first suggesting that a little more humanitarian aid should be allowed to enter Gaza, then urging Israel to adapt its military strategy to reduce the impact on civilians.

What explains the EU’s flip-flopping incoherence in response to the horrors in the Middle East? It would be easy to see the divergent rhetoric between, say, Dublin and Berlin as a sign of real dissensus: the anti-colonial impulses of the first versus the Zionist sympathies of the second. But though such domestic political differences are a factor, they may also obscure a more fundamental unity.

Since the invasion of Ukraine, the EU has given up on its fantasies of ‘strategic autonomy’ and embraced its role as US vassal. Its states are content to be the defanged guard dogs of the American imperium. One might assume that such unblinking loyalty would simplify EU foreign policy decisions – since they need only mimic those of Washington. But it is not so easy to line up behind the White House when the latter itself is in a deeply ambivalent position. In recent weeks, Washington has found it hard to stick to a consistent strategy. It has reaffirmed its ‘solidarity’ with Israel, circumvented Congress to furnish it with 14,000 rounds of tank ammunition, vetoed calls for a ceasefire at the UN and made every effort to shield its ally from accountability. At the same time, it has gradually ratcheted up criticism of Israeli military tactics, imposed sanctions on its settlers and signalled that the war may not be able to continue for much longer.

Clearly, the Biden administration is caught between reflexive support for Israel’s war and uncertainty about its implications, which may include sparking a wider regional conflict, unravelling the Abraham Accords and permanently damaging the US’s standing in the Arab world. Its confused rhetoric – green-lighting Netanyahu’s massacres and then complaining about them afterward – reflects this precarious position. Now, in trying to follow the US’s lead, the EU has merely replicated its confusion. European states may be willing to chastise Tel Aviv to varying degrees. But, together, they are each seeking to channel the instincts of the hegemon. Their fumbling attempts show that this is not an easy task.

Read on: Alexander Zevin, ‘Gaza and New York’, NLR 144.