The EU’s reaction to the Israel-Hamas conflict illustrates sometimes no unified EU voice is preferable

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By Dalibor Rohac, resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington D.C., covering political economy of the European Union and transatlantic relations

The case for a common European foreign policy has always been quite straightforward. The EU can speak louder with one voice on the global stage than through the cacophony of national voices. But what should that voice be, exactly?

The EU’s reaction to Hamas’ attacks on Israel, and to the Israeli response, illustrate the perils of trying to make the EU into a unified geopolitical actor. In EU High Representative Josep Borrell’s six-paragraph statement, exactly one and a half sentence were dedicated to the condemnation of Hamas’ unprecedented rocket attacks, which launched over 3200 rockets on Israel.

On Tuesday, Borrell stressed to reporters that the Israeli response ought “to be done in a proportionate manner and respecting international humanitarian law” and urged Israel “not to proceed with evictions in Sheikh Jarrah” – as if those were not a matter for Israel’s independent judiciary. The French foreign ministry added that it opposed “colonization in all its forms” and Germany’s Heiko Maas pledged a €40-million humanitarian assistance package for Gaza.

One does not have to be a wholehearted supporter of the current Israeli government to see the flaws with the bothsidesism that has come to dominate the European conversation on the subject. An obvious factual point elided by Israel’s critics is that the present conflict is not one between Israel and the Palestinians but between Israel and Hamas, an Iran-sponsored terrorist organization ruling over the Gaza Strip. Other than small protests in cities such as Ramallah, Palestinians in the West Bank have displayed little interest in joining the fight.

Secondly, the talk about the supposed lack of proportionality conveniently omits the fact that Israeli strikes would not have taken place without the barrage of Hamas’ rockets launched at Israel first. The logic is simple: no rocket attacks, no Israeli bombing. Israel also withdrew completely and unilaterally from Gaza in 2005 and has since displayed exactly zero interest in “occupying” or “colonizing” the territory.

The proportionality talk also holds Israel to standards that no other government in the world facing terrorist attacks has been asked to meet, ever. “This is David against Goliath,” according to the Free University of Brussels’ academic Jonathan Holslag, since “Israeli defense budget is €17bn; two hundred times more than what Hamas has at its disposal.” Setting aside Hamas’ long history of routinely placing civilians including children the harm’s way, the entire point of terrorism is to inflict disproportionate damage at a low cost. 9/11, for one, came at the cost of some flying lessons, 19 plane tickets, and some plastic box openers. Similarly, given the Iron Dome, demanding proportionality in terms of civilian casualties on both sides would require Israel to do literally nothing.

There is a tension in looking at the conflict through the prism of Palestinians’ historic grievances and their right of return without acknowledging symmetrical injustices that occurred as result of the Jordanian occupation. In fact, the property dispute in Jerusalem’s Sheikh Jarrah (or Shimon Hatsadik), which is seen as  trigger to the conflict, is a case in point. It involves a private party seeking to apply its pre-1948 (in fact, Ottoman-era) legal claim to houses confiscated by Jordanian occupiers.

This time, the effort to turn a deliberate obfuscation of the situation and the false moral equivalence between the two sides into an official EU position was blocked by Viktor Orbán’s Hungary, which much like a broken clock gets some things right on occasion. (In contrast, just last month, Hungary also blocked a common EU statement criticizing China over its crackdown in Hong Kong.) In Vienna and Prague, meanwhile, Prime Minister Sebastian Kurz and President Miloš Zeman flew Israeli flags over their official residences in solidarity with Israel.

Arguably, these are not the most reputable friends Israel could have in the EU, and their own motives might have to do more with their own affinities with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s politics than with a deep-seated affection for Israel (the Hungarian government in particular made significant strides to whitewash Hungary’s involvement in the Holocaust). That they, and not others, got the present situation right reflects poorly .

Nor are they completely alone in their assessment. The co-leader of Germany’s Greens, Annalena Baerbock, possibly the next German chancellor, had no compunction in saying that she stood with Israel against Hamas’ terror and condemned the displays of anti-Semitism witnessed at anti-Israel protests in Germany. Likewise, the Biden administration has resisted calls from the left flank of Congressional Democrats to criticize Israel and only on May 19 the US President called for “a significant de-escalation.”

Those who wish to hear the EU to speak with one voice are correct that the principle of unanimity on foreign and security matters makes it impossible to arrive at clear-cut decisions in real time. Yet, they ought to be careful about what they wish for. Sometimes no voice at all, or a plethora of contradictory voices, might be preferable to a voice that would have been as blatantly wrong as in the present case if the dominant European narrative had its way.

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