BRUSSELS — One day before South Africa confronted Israel with accusations of genocide at the UN’s top court, Belgium’s outspoken development minister publicly laid out the stark divisions within the EU.
Caroline Gennez asked German officials a rhetorical question in an interview with a Belgian weekly: “Do you really want to be on the wrong side of history twice? Will we continue to stand by while ethnic cleansing takes place? Surely that was ‘never again’?”
Germany, which has offered Israel unyielding support since the October 7 Hamas attack, has stood in stark contrast to public statements in recent months from officials from Ireland, Spain and Belgium.
In November, German Vice Chancellor Robert Habeck defended his country’s relationship with Israel, speaking candidly about the relationship as a “special” one, and saying it came from a place of what he called historical responsibility after the Holocaust. “It was the generation of my grandparents that wanted to exterminate Jewish life in Germany and Europe,” he said.
Israel’s airstrikes and ground operation in Gaza in response to the Hamas attack have killed more than 22,000 Palestinians in nearly 100 days, according to Gaza’s health ministry, leaving a growing void for agreement between the EU’s 27 member states.
Amid Iran-backed Houthi rebel attacks on ships in the Red Sea in solidarity with Palestinians and Israel’s recent killing of a senior Hamas leader in Beirut, South Africa’s case against Israel on European territory at The Hague — accusing it of one of the most serious crimes a country can be accused of — lays bare those divisions.
Even though historically the EU has agreed on broader issues such as a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians, it struggles to find common ground on Israel’s current operations in Gaza, experts say.
The bloc is so divided, they add, that it is useless as a power broker.
“I cannot imagine a scenario in my whole life where Josep Borrell will solve the Israeli-Palestinian [problem]. I think it’s below zero,” said Anders Persson, a political scientist at Linnaeus University in Sweden, referring to the EU’s top diplomat.
Settling for less
In the nearly 100 days since the Hamas attack, EU officials and member states have struggled to agree on where they stand as Israel’s operations turned the besieged enclave into a humanitarian crisis. Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen rushed to Israel in the days after the attack while Borrell took to social media to urge restraint from Israel as it pounded Gaza with thousands of bombs.
Individually, European countries have often played a role in counterbalancing unwavering U.S. support toward Israel. Yet when the 27 European capitals, each with their unique histories and relations to the region, have to agree on common language, Brussels’ compromise-making machine struggles (an EU leaders’ statement published a week after the Hamas attacks was significantly short, showing how little they could agree). In contrast, the U.S. is actively preparing a response to a potential broader regional conflict.
“We are in a state of settling for less, not doing too much, we’re watching the U.S. and then taking a view,” a French diplomat, who, like others quoted in this piece, was granted anonymity to speak candidly, said.
Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff, the EU’s former head of mission to Palestine, said the EU was deliberately choosing not to use its leverage over Israel, for example in the association agreement both sides have signed. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “has always tried to play out member states against one other and never took the EU seriously because he knew that we were split on a number of important issues,” von Burgsdorff said.
For many European countries, the war has divided their own societies, with anti-semitic incidents on the rise. French President Emmanuel Macron, whose country has the largest Jewish community in Europe, numbering almost 500,000, and one of the largest Muslim communities in Europe, an estimated 5 million, has expressed fears that the conflict would be exported to France.
These divisions come just as Europe was already grappling with an emerging far-right sentiment in the lead-up to the European elections in early June. The far-right Identity and Democracy faction in the European Parliament, polling shows, is set to become the third biggest group. These parties were already banking on Europe’s struggle to control undocumented migration and the cost-of-living crisis. Now, the Israel-Hamas war risks inflaming tensions within European countries with large Muslim populations.
“We are not going to spend any political capital on this, the positions are so divergent and irreconcilable. And it is not a top priority in public opinions ahead of European elections,” said the French diplomat.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ), which arbitrates cases between states, will hear South Africa’s case against Israel on Thursday and Friday.
Peter Stano, spokesperson for EU foreign and security policy, said that while the EU supports the ICJ, “it does not comment on pending cases there.”
Germany, one of the strongest supporters of Israel in the EU, said through a spokesperson that “the claim that Israel is committing genocide in the Gaza Strip is false and not covered by the [U.N. Genocide] Convention.”
Austria, another EU country that has shown unwavering support to Israel, told POLITICO through its Foreign Affairs Ministry that “the accusation of genocide as a ‘crime of crimes’ is extremely serious and should not be made lightly” but at the same it time “currently has no plans to participate in the South Africa-Israel process.”
Countries such as Ireland, Spain and Belgium have historically been more critical of Israel.
In Belgium, some governing parties are pushing to join South Africa’s case in The Hague. Deputy Prime Minister Petra De Sutter said Belgium is relatively isolated within the EU with its position on the conflict. Ireland’s Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has ruled out joining South Africa against Israel, which is seen as a sign of how unpredictable the outcome of the trial is.
While the hearing is a first step in a longer process that could take years to play out, the ICJ could issue provisional measures like asking for a ceasefire or humanitarian corridors, the Palestinian ambassador to South Africa, Hanan Jarrar, told POLITICO.
Jarrar said that if Israel ignores any decision issued by the court it will make Europe’s fragmented stance a harder one to maintain. “It will be difficult even for European countries to justify their support to Israel… sticking to principles of supporting human rights is strong in Europe,” she argued.
Israel is stirring up support and is confident South Africa’s accusations are not accurate, said Haim Regev, the Israeli ambassador to the EU and NATO.
He stressed Israel is fighting a war against Hamas and against not the Palestinians. “We do not intentionally harm or try to harm any [person] uninvolved, we don’t have any plan like that,” he told POLITICO. The comments of some hardline ministers calling for the deportation of Palestinians is not the Israeli line, he added.
When European leaders met for the last time in mid-December, a group of four leaders — from Spain, Belgium, Ireland and Malta — urged their colleagues to have a “serious debate” on Gaza, arguing the EU’s “credibility is at stake.” However, the EU top brass were unable to agree on a new common language on Gaza, especially, but not only, because of resistance from German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, four diplomats said. But “in general the appetite was very low,” said one of them.
The longer the war in Gaza drags on, the more complicated a united European response is likely to become. But two diplomats told POLITICO they think the war seems to have reached a new phase after Israel bombed the Gaza Strip for weeks as Israel announced it will launch more targeted, specific military operations in coming weeks.
Anthony Gardner, former U.S. ambassador to the EU, stressed that even if the EU does get its ducks in a row to forge more united statements, it would still be on the margins, as the U.S. and some regional players are the only ones able to make an impact on the ground.
So far, there are no plans for European leaders to discuss the war when they meet in early February for a special summit in Brussels, an EU official said.
“Europe is mostly just not a player in this conflict and it is struggling with that reality,” said Gardner.
Clea Caulcutt contributed reporting from Paris. Pieter Haeck and Paula Andres Richart contributed reporting from Brussels.
CORRECTION: This article was updated to correct the spelling of Sven Kühn von Burgsdorff’s name.