EU fails to resolve contradictory messages on Israel-Gaza war

Officials in Brussels have been at loggerheads with each other and member states on bitterly divisive issues

European Council President Charles Michel. AP
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At an extraordinary meeting on the Israel-Gaza war on Tuesday, EU leaders struggled to bridge their often contradictory messages on the conflict, with warnings that Russia seeks to profit from rifts caused by the war.

Officials said Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who met Russian President Vladimir Putin in Beijing on Tuesday, missed the talks in a sign of the bloc's divergences.

Officials in Brussels have been at loggerheads with each other and member states on important but bitterly divisive issues.

While there has been widespread condemnation of the slaughter by Hamas of Israelis, there have been disagreements over calls to rein in retaliatory strikes on Gaza and maintain aid to the Palestinians.

A major point of ire for some capitals has been perceptions that European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has overstepped her remit with her unflinching backing for Israel.

European Council President Charles Michel said leaders had sought to ensure "maximum co-ordination" between their countries and Brussels at an emergency videoconference.

"It's a conflict which is generating a lot of fragmentation, of divisions, of polarisation amongst our people, amongst our societies," Mr Michel told a media conference.

"That's why we need also to co-operate at European Union level to try to defuse the tensions."

He condemned Israel's "total siege" of Gaza and any strikes on humanitarian infrastructure as not in line with international law.

Mr Michel expressed his "emotion" after a deadly strike on a key hospital in the region.

The latest from the Israel-Gaza war - in pictures

Ms von der Leyen, who leads the EU's executive arm, said it was "essential" Israel provided drinking water to Gaza.

But she delivered a far more thorough defence of Israel's actions after visiting sites attacked by Hamas on a trip last week.

"There is no contradiction in standing with Israel in solidarity and acting for the humanitarian needs for the Palestinians," she said.

Both EU leaders warned about the threat of Russia using the Israel-Gaza conflict to weaken the West as Moscow fights it own war on Ukraine.

"Russia will try and has already started to try to exploit this situation to feed a narrative against the European Union, against the partners of the European Union," Mr Michel said.

"Let's not fall into this trap. Let's remain attached to our principles, our values, the respect for human rights and respect for dignity of people."

Mr Michel said the bloc needed to work on a "broad partnership" with key regional player Egypt as global powers urgently try to stop a broader conflict engulfing the Middle East.

EU leaders taking part in the talks echoed the need for greater unity.

"At this deeply troubling moment, it's vital for the leaders of the European Union to set out our common position," Irish premier Leo Varadkar wrote on social media.

The video conference, coming a week before leaders are to meet in person at a regular Brussels summit, followed criticism of Ms von der Leyen on the notoriously divisive subject.

She has cultivated a profile as the face of the EU and last Friday flew to Israel to tell its Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Europe backed his country's right to defend itself.

But that message was delivered without the caution being voiced by other western leaders – and by the EU's own top foreign policy official, Josep Borrell – that any Israeli action must abide by international humanitarian law.

Several EU governments bristled at Ms von der Leyen taking it on herself to wade into foreign policy matters, which are decided by member countries, without prior consultation.

That followed a furore after top EU official Oliver Varhelyi went it alone to announce the disbursement of EU development aid to Palestinians had been frozen because of Hamas's bloody attack in Israel on October 7.

The commission later corrected that to say it will see if payments for development projects in Palestinian territories "need to be adjusted" but that humanitarian aid was not affected.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz on Tuesday said his country “stands firmly” by Israel's side, before making an impromptu visit to Israel where he met Mr Netanyahu.

“Afterwards, I will travel to Egypt to see President [Abdel Fattah] El Sisi,” he wrote on social media platform X, formerly Twitter.

“It's about protecting the civilian population in the Gaza Strip and avoiding a conflagration."

Updated: October 17, 2023, 10:33 PM