As Israeli fighter jets flew bombing raids over Gaza last week, the country’s blue and white flag was hoisted above Austria’s federal chancellery.
The raising of the standard was a characteristic coup de théâtre by Sebastian Kurz, the central European country’s strongly pro-Israel premier. But it also highlighted a wider public alignment of many European states with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as Israel has resisted international calls for a ceasefire to end its worst conflict with Palestinians for years.
Israeli strikes had killed 213 Palestinians, including 61 children and 36 women as of Tuesday, according to the Gaza health ministry. Israel has reported that 11 Israelis have been killed by Hamas’ attacks, including two children.
On Tuesday, talks by EU foreign ministers ended without conclusion. All member states but Hungary supported the “general thrust” of a common statement that urged implementation of a ceasefire, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said.
Prior to the meeting, Borrell had voiced alarm about the “unacceptable number of civilian casualties” and promised to discuss “how the EU can best contribute to end the current violence”. But the online meeting revealed the 27-member European bloc’s internal disagreements over the Israel-Palestinian dispute and lack of influence over efforts to resolve it.
The Europeans were “likely to play the role they have played in previous crises in this conflict: bystanders while the rockets fly and paymasters once reconstruction begins”, said Kristina Kausch, senior fellow at the Brussels office of the German Marshall Fund of the US, a think-tank.
“European divisions will come back to the fore once a ceasefire is in place,” she said. “They will have to say what their plan is to support a sustainable solution beyond the same talking points they have been repeating over the last two decades.”
Almost 30 years ago, Europe helped seal the Oslo Accords, a high-water mark in international efforts to end the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict. But in recent years the Europeans’ role and influence has diminished, just as the vision that was inspired by 1990s Oslo peace process has become ever more distant — a viable Palestinian state alongside Israel.
Meanwhile, Netanyahu, aided by Donald Trump’s presidency, has forged relations with rightwing European leaders, including Kurz and Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister. This has exacerbated differences within the bloc and complicated the EU’s ability to achieve consensus on the Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
EU members who push for a more active approach in support of Palestinians’ rights, such as Ireland, Sweden and Luxembourg, faced a “silent middle, and a vocal group pushing back,” including Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic, said Hugh Lovatt, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.
“The Trump administration gave them momentum and cover, and it goes beyond the Palestinian issue. Trump really did drive a new alignment of ethno-nationalist governments which tend to be supportive of Netanyahu,” Lovatt said. “They see certain common ideological affinities, not anything to do with the Palestinian issue, but their world vision.”
The EU’s ability to play a more active role in halting the current violence is made still more difficult because, like the US, it considers Hamas a terrorist organisation. It refuses to talk to the Islamist group and therefore has little leverage over it.
The many tensions Europe faces over the Israel-Palestinian crisis are clear in Germany. Berlin is eager to appear even-handed and back a diplomatic solution. It has also been highly critical of Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank, where Israeli forces have killed 21 Palestinians since protests erupted in the occupied territory on Friday.
But at the same time Germany has had to deal with anti-Israel demonstrations by some young Muslims that have spilled over into acts of anti-Semitism. For a country still atoning for its Nazi past and the crimes of the Holocaust, the anti-Jewish slogans have provoked a deep sense of shame and alarm.
In recent days, some protesters burnt Israeli flags in front of synagogues in the western cities of Bonn and Münster, while a group waving Palestinian flags outside a synagogue in Gelsenkirchen chanted “F***ing Jews”.
Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel condemned the anti-Semitism and offered Netanyahu support in a call with him on Monday, according to Steffen Seibert, her press spokesman. The German leader deplored the Hamas rocket assaults, assured Israel’s prime minister of Berlin’s solidarity and reaffirmed Israel’s “right to strike back in self-defence against these attacks”, Seibert said.
France, with the largest populations of both Jews and Muslims in western Europe, has also long been wary of strong engagement with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Tensions in the Middle East have previously spilled over into anti-Semitic attacks and confrontations on French streets.
Authorities broke up a pro-Palestinian protest march in Paris on Saturday at which some demonstrators shouted “Death to Israel!” and “Israel assassin!”. President Emmanuel Macron has called for peace talks and offered condolences to Palestinian and Israeli leaders for the deaths on both sides.
In the UK, which left the EU last year, public condemnation for Hamas and support for Israel is underpinned by private anxiety that the space for a two-state solution is disappearing.
UK officials also echoed the wider sense that Europe is a peripheral player in the current conflict. One well-placed Whitehall figure said: “There is a clear frustration that the Palestinian Authority and Hamas are unable to offer leadership — but Israel doesn’t want to move either.” A British diplomat put it still more bluntly: “Israel does not seem to be listening that much to us.”
Additional reporting by Guy Chazan in Berlin, Victor Mallet in Paris and Sebastian Payne in London