The EU has been engaged in the Mideast for years, both diplomatically and above all as a financier of the Palestinian Authority. But Brussels has proved unable to gain influence over the Israelis or Palestinians.
The European Union's foreign policy chief has said she was "deeply concerned at the escalating violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip," placing the blame for the conflict on the Palestinian Hamas faction.
In a statement, Catherine Ashton said "the rocket attacks by Hamas and other factions in Gaza, which began this current crisis, are totally unacceptable for any government and must stop."
While affirming that "Israel has the right to protect its population from these kinds of attacks," Ashton urged the Jewish state had to ensure that "its response is proportionate."
Ashton said that she had discussed the situation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the office of the Egyptian president and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. The EU foreign policy chief also expressed hope that the visit of Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil to the Gaza Strip would help calm the situation.
Speaking at a conference of foreign and defense ministers from five EU countries in Paris on Thursday (15.11.2012), German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle spoke of an "extraordinarily dangerous situation." While supporting Israel's right to self-defense, he said that it was of "great significance" that a new "spiral of violence" does not arise.
Martin Schulz, the president of the European parliament, called on both sides to "exercise maximum restraint and avoid any further loss of human life. Civilians on both sides are paying the highest price in this vicious cycle of attacks and retaliations." Schulz added that the European Union continues to support a two-state solution in the Middle East. "I call on both sides to refrain from warlike and counterproductive rhetoric and return to the negotiating table," he said.
Receding hopes of a Palestinian state
The words of Schulz's predecessor as parliamentary president, Hans-Gert Pöttering, show just how much more optimistic the tone was in the EU a few years ago. Almost exactly three years ago on November 9, 2009, Pöttering said during a visit to Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas that "we want to be honest mediators. And a secure Palestinian state must not remain a vision. It has to become a reality in our generation. And if we want it, we can achieve it."
Six months later, on March 22, 2010, Ashton had also sounded very confident, giving an even more concrete timeframe than Pöttering for when a Palestinian state should be founded. "We believe that negotiations should within two years bring a settlement that will result in an independent, democratic and viable state of Palestine that lives side-by-side in peace and security with Israel and other neighbors," she said.
But since 2010, there have been no direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians and the peace efforts of the Mideast quartet, in which the EU participates, have not brought success any closer.
EU divided over Israel
The EU currently confronts a dilemma in its policy vis-à-vis Palestine. The 27-member bloc has good relations with the Palestinian Authority and is its main donor. This year, Brussels sent 200 million euros to the Palestinians. Without this support, the Palestinian administration and a good portion of the infrastructure would hardly be able function.
But Brussels has designated Hamas a terrorist organization and therefore maintains no official contacts with the Islamist group. Since Hamas took over the Gaza Strip in 2007, there have effectively been two Palestinian administrations. That means EU aid can only reach the population of Gaza through indirect means, thereby limiting Brussels' influence. EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said during a trip to the West Bank last July that reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas is a "key factor for the unity of a future Palestinian state and for the achievement of a two-state solution."
The EU is also frustrated that much of what it built in the Palestinian territories has been destroyed by Israel. Numbers from the European Commission estimate around 50 million euros in damage over the course of the past 10 years. The EU has protested to Israel not only about the damage, but also against the construction of settlements in the occupied territories.
Those protests, however, have had virtually no impact in Israel, despite the economic weight of the EU. A major reason for the block's lack of influence is that it speaks with so many different national voices. Traditionally Israel-friendly Germany, for example, speaks much differently than Spain, which has long maintained close relations with the Arab world.