Last Updated on Thursday, 19 October, 2023 at 8:37 am by Andre Camilleri
Last week, the online news portals were reporting that the president of the European Commission and the president of the European Parliament travelled to Israel to perhaps assess the tensions unfolding in the Middle East. At the outset, I thought they were there as interlocutors to bring all parties – bar the militant group Hamas – together, to primarily mitigate the risks of a humanitarian tragedy, as well as to reiterate the EU’s position of the two-state solution. It could have served as a good opportunity for the EU to start repairing some of its diplomatic reputational damage.
Let me leave the European Commission aside for a while. The European Parliament’s powers are limited when it comes to Common and Foreign Security Policy of the EU. Technically, the presence of the President of the EU Parliament in Israel was more to send a political message, which message, was totally distinct from the EU’s longstanding position of a two-state solution. Whatever position they take, it is just a political message, with no powers conferred upon them to deliver a mandate or alter the EU’s position. This means that the EU’s position on the two-state solution is still in place, whatever unilateral decisions are uttered or assumed by the European Parliament. Personally, I would not have travelled to Israel to deliver such a statement. Utterly, ill-timed. The move was rushed and the statements that ensued were also premature.
Diplomacy dictates the context and the timing of events, and when to say or refrain from saying something. To make matters worse, the president of the European Commission went contrary to the direction of the EU foreign ministers, taken a few days earlier. The message during the last videoconference of the foreign affairs Council was clear. Ministers called for restraint. When I saw both Ursula von der Leyen and Roberta Metsola in Israel, I hoped that the positions of both institutions would align with those of Council. The rare scene of President von der Leyen and President Metsola, along each other shaking hands, reminded me of the siblings Sheila and Kelly, in one of the Japanese cartoon’s episode Occhi di Gatto. Do not ask me why but that is how clumsy it stared on our TV screens. Someone even sent me a screenshot of President von der Leyen wearing a laurel green shirt submerged in a grey bulletproof vest. The message underneath read, “Lately, she’s looking more like a Playmobil toy. Too rigid and too stiff. All staged and posing for the press”. What are they trying to do with the EU? I replied, “No idea, but certainly no gravitas”.
Last year, the President of the European Commission adopted a divisive narrative, which fuelled additional instability and closed all diplomatic channels. In my opinion, the situation in Gaza is much more complex than the war in Ukraine, especially if it unfolds into a regional war. The reasons are myriad and Iran is watching closely. Notwithstanding that Israel has every right, under international law, to defend itself, especially from militant groups like Hamas, excessive force on civilians is objectionable under international law and the Geneva Convention. Clearly, the political message sent by the European Commission and the European Parliament were different. They were blessing what it could risk developing into a humanitarian crisis. No wonder the High Representative was not present for the visit.
Illogical as it may sound, the Israeli authorities were calling for the evacuation of civilians in a relatively short period of time. Technically, one million people cannot be evacuated in 24 hours. So, the warning prior to the military operation in Gaza lacked factual details due to the impossible logistical technicalities required to evacuate one million civilians. Civilians have nothing to do with Hamas. Israel must withdraw from targeting civilian buildings, especially hospitals. Surely, history is not like a recipe book. It does not mean that we can follow a manual. It may give us a deep insight, even though it cannot be followed to the letter. However, when in 1948 Palestinians left their homes, they never returned. It is known as the Nakba. The heart aching stories were passed from one generation to another. The same generations that saw the treatment of their parents and relatives different, with lack of opportunities and at times deprivation. Surely, Palestinians believe that if they leave their homes, they will never be allowed to return.
Let me make things clear from the outset. Clearly, I condemn the attacks by the militant group Hamas. And I express sincere condolences to the families of the victims of the attacks by the militant group Hamas. Unequivocally, all hostages retained by the militant group Hamas must be released. And Hamas must stop weaponizing civilians. However, Palestine is not Hamas. I remember President Mahmoud Abbas in our Political and Security Committee room briefing us about the dire situation in Gaza and the West Bank. Surely, I cannot say more due to confidentiality, and what I am about to reveal, was certainly reported in the media. President Abbas warned the EU several times about the problems that Palestinians were facing, including economic problems. President Abbas even shared with us the aspirations of the younger generation. When in 2018 I shook hands with President Abbas, I could sense the ache and the desperate call for the realisation of the two-state solution.
Equally, as a representative of the Maltese government in Council, I had quite an excellent rapport with the Israelis. My predecessor was quite into the topic of the two-state solution. Perhaps, it is because he was also posted in Ramallah. However, when I was appointed to the post I tried as much as possible, to retain a diplomatic narrative in Council. Nevertheless, that does not mean that I never criticised or made my concerns known to my Israeli counterparts. We used to have constructive discussions. We respected each other, and I even built a serious relationship with the diplomatic mission. I recall that a few countries had quite a strong position on Palestine. Certainly, I cannot think about the President of the European Council, being a Belgian, taking the same position of the other two institutions, prior to consulting heads of state and government. President Charles Michel convened an informal videoconference of the European Council to discuss the situation in the Middle East, calling for restrain and the access of humanitarian aid to reach civilians in Gaza.
Certainly, I truly hope that this conflict does not unfold into a regional one. The EU is currently in a weak position, as most of the resources were channelled towards the war in Ukraine. To conclude, the EU’s diplomatic leverage melted to irrelevance.
Thank you Ursula and thank you all the penholders of this huge political mess.