In Other News – A View from Abroad

The first week of every month, In Other News features a short op-ed heavily informed by the European perspective. We hope that these special monthly pieces will offer our readers an enriched understanding of global events and allow for a more robust international risk calculus.

The Hamas attack and subsequent war in Gaza expose the European Union’s divisions but highlight a shared mission for long-term security in the Middle East. The impact of the October 7 Hamas attack- and of Israel’s retaliatory actions in Gaza- is reverberating throughout Europe on both political and personal levels. But when it comes to weighing in on how Israel should best respond to Hamas, European Union (EU) members are divided and face pressures on both domestic and international levels.

From the European perspective, the EU Commission- its executive branch- blundered in the first days after the Hamas attack. One Commissioner announced that the EU would end all its financial support for the Palestinian Authority, only to be corrected within 24 hours. At the same time, EU Commission President Von der Leyen, who herself has only limited foreign policy competencies, went out on a limb in support for Israel. Over 600 EU civil servants drafted a letter to the Commission, criticizing the first pro-Israel reaction by Von der Leyen as too one-sided. Indeed, Von der Leyen’s move was in clear disagreement with the EU’s High Representative – the de facto EU Minister of Foreign Affairs Josep Borrell, who advocated for a more balanced approach.

Traditionally, EU member states themselves are divided and impassioned when it comes to the Middle East. This can be seen in the divergent responses of EU member states on the recent UN vote calling for a ceasefire- where there was a three-way split: eight votes in favor, four against and 15 abstentions. As it currently stands, after much diplomatic wrangling, a common EU position has evolved balancing the right of Israel to self-defense while simultaneously stressing Israel’s obligation to respect international law and allow for UN-led humanitarian access.

The Middle East is always a heated topic in Europe, where furious protest activity- and antisemitic and Islamophobic attacks- have been on full display over the past several weeks. While treatment of the Europe’s local Jewish populations has historically varied starkly based on place and time, the past several decades have also seen an increase in Muslim citizens throughout Europe. This is a relevant factor in today’s domestic political calculus as well; in the UK this is called the implication of the new “Muslim vote” for the political position of major parties.

In addition to domestic constituency concerns, EU leaders are also under pressure from the international community. Some leaders from the Global South are already using the war as an opportunity to express grievances against Washington and Europe more broadly. Political representatives from Africa, Asia and South America are imploring European leaders to explain why international law principles, used by Europeans in their stance against Russia’s attack on Ukraine, don’t also apply in the current crisis and to the fate of the Palestinian people. And ironically enough, Russia and China are also trying to use this argument to undercut global support for Ukraine.

European leaders are watching as Arab nations are likewise trying to balance domestic and international expectations. Nations that have established diplomatic relations with Israel – Egypt, Jordan, UAE, Morocco, Bahrain, Sudan – face the dilemma of maintaining these relations and profiting from them – both economically as regionally- while their populations are overwhelmingly in solidarity with the Palestinian cause. Normalization between Saudi Arabia with Israel has been put on hold. While the Iranian affiliation and extremist orientation of Hamas does not endear it to Arab governments, the Hamas attack has significantly shifted the paradigm, and Arab leaders need to be strategic in how they respond. Syria seems to have made clear that it will not allow Hezbollah to attack Israel from Syrian soil, but no such limits exist for Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Indeed, Hezbollah and Israel have been exchanging fire on the border, and tensions and violence have skyrocketed in the West Bank. This week, Yemeni Houthis, another Iranian proxy like Hamas, reportedly launched missiles and drones into Israel, raising the question of what Iran might do next, or how much control Iran ultimately has over some of its proxies. Fears abound that the regional conflict could spiral into a multi-nation siege. Meanwhile, the United Nations overwhelmingly voted for a ceasefire and refused to collectively condemn the initial Hamas attack.

Amid all of the chaos, the most effective option for EU member states will be to stay closely aligned with the United States. Both the EU and Washington share the long-term goal of regional security in the Middle East. However, it remains to be seen how effective the EU will be in its efforts to pressure Israel to respect international law and to allow UN-led humanitarian efforts in Gaza, while also working with Arab countries to put pressure on Hamas to release the hostages.

The Arkin Group is a strategic intelligence firm offering investigative research, due diligence, international risk and crisis consulting, and security & preparedness services. We can be contacted at 212-333-0280.