In The Middle East, Ukraine Must Walk A Tightrope Between The U.S. And Europe
The EU must find a way to negotiate uncomfortable disagreements within its ranks. Ukraine can't be seen as taking an unequivocal stand in support of any one side either.
KYIV — Just a few weeks ago, the European Union had hoped to restart peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority through a new Middle East peace initiative offering incentives for both sides.
Of course, we now know these plans were derailed on October 7 when Hamas fired thousands of rockets from Gaza towards Israeli cities, and a heavily armed group invaded southern Israel, killing more than 1,200 civilians and taking some 200 hostages.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is now warning of a prolonged conflict.
The future of the Palestinian Authority, based in Ramallah in the West Bank, also now hinges on the unfolding events. A return to the previous "status quo," in which Hamas essentially controlled Gaza, appears unlikely.
However, it's not just Israel and Palestine that will have to adapt. The European Union, in particular, faces a challenging decision. The EU's policy towards the region has been centered on peacekeeping and direct support for Palestine, and Europe has been the main donor to Palestine for the past decade. The violent terrorist attacks in Israel, openly supported by Ramallah, make changes in EU policy inevitable.
Yet, there is a lack of unity within the EU about what these changes should entail because not all member countries are prepared to align with Israel.
In this complex landscape, Ukraine also needs to formulate its policy regarding the region. This must take into account the positions of the EU, which Ukraine is integrated with; the U.S., on which Ukraine's security depends; Israel, a fellow fighter against terrorism; and the Arab states, which Kyiv is actively supporting.
"Peacemaking" on the side of Palestine
Over the course of almost a decade of Russian aggression in Ukraine, the effectiveness of international organizations operating in the conflict zone — such as OSCE missions and certain UN institutions — has drawn skepticism. Interestingly, the EU managed to avoid being closely associated with these organizations, even though it financially supported their activities without publicizing it.
The dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are different. For years, the EU has assumed the role of a "chief peacemaker" here. It's important to note that even before the terrorist attack on October 7, public sympathies in Ukraine were largely on the side of Israel, in line with the stand of the U.S. However, the EU has historically shown greater favor toward the Palestinians.
The EU has consistently advocated for the establishment of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders with land swaps, including the division of Jerusalem as the capital for both Israel and Palestine. This is in accordance with international law and is mandated by several UN Security Council resolutions, which Israel has often disregarded. Israel has justified its actions based on historical and security concerns, but the EU has rejected these arguments.
Over time, the EU has escalated its criticism of Israel's policies. It has strongly condemned Israel's military actions in Palestinian territories and Lebanon. Additionally, Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights, which international law recognized as sovereign Syrian territory, left the Europeans with little room for maneuver.
In recent years, the EU has accused Israel of systematic violations of Palestinian rights. During previous escalations in the region, the EU clearly sided with Palestine. For instance, in 2002, during Israel's Operation Protective Shield, the European Parliament passed a non-binding resolution calling for economic sanctions against Israel.
Relations between the EU and Israel were further strained by the 2013 EU directive which required the Israeli government and beneficiaries of European programs to specify in future agreements that settlements in the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, were outside the boundaries of the state of Israel, even as Netanyahu insisted that the EU should recognize Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state.
However, in recent months, the EU's position and Israel's stance had somewhat converged. Europe's desire for peace aligns with Netanyahu's efforts to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia. The negotiations included some concessions to the Palestinians, as acknowledged by Netanyahu. Though details were not disclosed, statements indicated that the idea was to encourage economic cooperation among Arabs in the Gaza Strip and West Bank, rather than supporting terrorism within Hamas. The negotiations also aimed to set aside unresolved issues, such as the coexistence of two peoples in Jerusalem.
Sven Koopmans, EU Special Envoy for the Middle East Peace Process, explained during the UN General Assembly in September that the European body is focused on achieving peace rather than delving into the specifics of final status settlement. The EU seeks to provide incentives to the parties involved rather than taking a punitive approach. In comparison to previous efforts, Koopmans described this approach as more conciliatory and less coercive.
It's evident that the plans to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict couldn't continue after the events of October 7. The attack, involving hostage-taking, shootings of unarmed civilians, and more, painted a clear black-and-white picture where Hamas and the Palestinian Authority as a whole were seen as the perpetrators of evil. As a response, Brussels swiftly announced the suspension of funding for projects in the Palestinian territories.
The European Commissioner for Neighborhood Affairs, Oliver Várhelyi, said: "As the largest donor to the Palestinians, the European Commission is reassessing its entire portfolio of development projects, totaling 691 million euros." Furthermore, he announced an "immediate suspension" of payments for ongoing projects in Palestine and the postponement of new proposals for financial aid to the Palestinians "until further notice."
This is a significant move: EU funds were instrumental in sustaining the Palestinian economy and state apparatus, including the payment of civil servant salaries. From 2008 to 2020, the European Union provided nearly 2.5 billion euros in direct budget support to the Palestinian Authority.
Israel claims EU money went toward paying terrorists.
Furthermore, there had been ongoing criticism of Israel in Brussels, claiming that some of this EU money went towards paying imprisoned and released terrorists, as well as the families of "martyrs." Essentially, this meant financing the machinery of terrorism. Even when more evidence of this funding surfaced, finding a suitable solution was not easy. The EU argued that cutting off funds to the Palestinian authorities in Ramallah could lead to further radicalization among Palestinians, while Israel contended that EU policy effectively condoned terrorism and stoked hatred towards Israel.
The EU's support extended beyond the Palestinian state apparatus. According to last year's data on European investments in Palestine, contributions from the EU, its member states, as well as EBRD and EIB banks have totaled 1.4 billion euros since 2014.
However, there was another, more troubling source of funding for Palestine, which could be described as terrorist in nature. An essential source of income for Palestinians and the Gaza Strip's economy was the proceeds from their involvement in Hamas operations. Hamas, in power in the Gaza Strip since 2007, might have entertained the ideas put forth by EU donors, but it was unwilling to relinquish its fight against Israel, which made it indispensable to its primary sponsor in the proxy war, Iran.
Even ordinary Palestinians were unlikely to accept a cessation of hostilities. The overwhelming majority of the region's population harbored a deep-seated animosity towards Israel. In an environment where there was a dearth of legitimate business opportunities and employment prospects, recruiting Palestinians for terrorist attacks against Israel wasn't a difficult task. For many, it was almost the only means of earning a living.
May 14, 2023, Aachen, Germany: European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen congratulates Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy after he was awarded the International Charlemagne Prize of Aachen.
Pool /Ukrainian Presidentia/ZUMA
It's important to acknowledge that Israel hasn't been entirely blameless in inciting conflict with the Palestinians. Their provocation includes the expansion of Israeli settlements in territories recognized as occupied under international law and a general sense of hostility towards Palestinians, which has been exacerbated by statements from far-right politicians. However, all these arguments were overshadowed by the events of October 7.
Following the Hamas attack, the EU's foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, emphasized that Israel has an unquestionable right to self-defense, granting it the right to strike the Palestinian territories from which the attacks originated.
Such statements from high-ranking EU officials indicated that Palestine and Hamas had crossed a critical line.
Sovereign statements regarding funding also emerged from individual EU member states, although not from all of them. Austria, for example, suspended bilateral aid for the development of Palestinian territories, temporarily freezing payments of 19 million euros. Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg explained this move by citing the magnitude of the terror attacks.
The German government quickly clarified that it doesn't directly finance the Palestinian Authority but provides support to Palestine in general. In a less radical-sounding statement, German development Minister Svenja Schulze pledged to review all German aid, amounting to 125 million euros for 2023-24, to ensure that it "promotes peace rather than terrorists."
The Commission clarified its position twice in a single day.
However, even as it appeared momentarily that the EU might completely sever its financial ties with Palestine, some capitals were not ready to completely disengage from funding.
Surprisingly, it was revealed that Commissioner Várhelyi's strong statement had not been coordinated with the member countries. In essence, the Hungarian Commissioner had overstepped his authority in deciding to halt payments to Palestine. Consequently, the European Commission clarified its position twice in a single day.
To be sure, a common opinion is not guaranteed, as there are reports from Brussels that member countries disagree even on fundamental matters, such as whether to label Hamas as a terrorist organization and the terms of engagement with Israel.
The longstanding framework of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in which Israel formally holds the status of an aggressor state, still influences the positions of some capitals.
What should Ukraine do?
Ukraine is not a geopolitical player in Israel, so our role should not be overestimated — but its stand on the issue is important in the context of its relations with its international partners. The term "partners" here refers not so much to Israel itself — which during the great war did not rush to help Ukraine but flirted with the aggressor instead – as to those states that are our key allies.
The history of divergent positions within the EU proves that there is no place for a simple solution in the Israeli issue. Especially for Ukraine, which is a candidate for EU membership.
A separate vector is Ukraine's relations with influential countries of the Arab world
But there is another vector — the U.S. Fortunately, we do not have to synchronize our policy with Washington's, but diametrical disagreements with a key security donor are also undesirable. And the U.S., unlike Europe, is distinctly pro-Israel and anti-Palestinian, a position that enjoys bipartisan support.
A separate vector is Ukraine's relations with influential countries of the Arab world, chiefly Saudi Arabia, which has supported Kyiv in both security issues and diplomacy. For now, the Arab world is on standby and in no rush to firmly side with Hamas (the latest terrorist attacks seem to have been too brutal even for the Gulf states). But the ongoing shelling of Gaza with the deaths of hundreds of Palestinians, i.e. Arabs, will probably shift this balance.
Under these conditions, Ukraine's unequivocal support for either side may trigger undesirable consequences. Perhaps the best option for Kyiv is to join the position of the EU.
Firstly, because it will be the most weighted option due to the presence of different opinions within the EU. And secondly, because Kyiv will soon begin negotiations on joining the EU, and as such it should align itself more closely to the EU on key foreign policy issues.
Ultimately, this will also be the best position Ukraine can cite to partners from other continents who would like to drag the country to their side in the conflict.
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