Netanyahu Has Europe Where He Wants It

Vicente Palacio

7 mins - 19 de Abril de 2024, 07:00

After six months of destruction in Gaza, Netanyahu has Europe exactly where he wants it. Predictably, following Tehran's retaliation to the attack on its consulate in Damascus, the EU has fallen into Netanyahu's 'Iranian trap'. For the Likud leader, it is now about screen time: taking the Gaza war and the Palestinian issue to the terrain where he feels comfortable and indestructible: in the existential confrontation with Tehran. There is nothing better than burying a catastrophe under the scenic fear of another, even bigger catastrophe. We are entering a more geopolitical phase. A comprehensive and just solution for the Middle East is a little further on the horizon. The "Palestinian state" will be lost in the corridors of the United Nations thanks to Washington's blockade.

Netanyahu is spouting a fake in the face of Israeli society and Europe: that all of them - Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis, the Islamic State, the United Nations, UNWRA, the European dovish rulers and the autocracies of this world - are the same thing: an existential danger to the State of Israel. The bad news is that it is working again. 

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Israel is a democracy (30th in The Economist ranking, 2023, just behind the US). But it behaves like a theological democracy: it is governed by rules that belong to another historical era, very different from Brussels. That gives it a lot of leverage. Right now Europe can hardly see beyond the June elections and the uncertainties of EU governance. "Bibi (like Putin) has never taken the EU seriously, and if there is one thing he knows how to do, it is to buy time. His bet is on Trump's return to the White House after the November presidential election, division in the EU, and the end of any hope for a European Middle East and two-state policy. But even if Biden wins, a regional war would put the US on his side (his first reaction to the 7 October Hamas massacre was to send warships). And it would leave his hands free. 

Netanyahu is entangling Europe with this perverse action-reaction logic of calculated violence: you are either with me or against Israel. He has everything to gain from European leaders in a pre-election moment and tacticising. It is relatively easy to exploit European fear of escalation and resignation to the status quo. No one seems to want to make life too difficult for themselves. Von der Lyen has not managed to fix it since he called for a freeze on humanitarian aid to Palestine. Germany is still in recession and trapped in its double syndrome, the Munich syndrome (with regard to Ukraine) and the Auswitich syndrome (with Israel) with the dismal green-gray minister Baerbock at the helm. Macron is playing the anti-Islamist-terrorist alert card to stop a far-right Marine Le Pen on the rise. Austrian Chancellor Nehammer probably needs a good psychoanalysis session to explain his unconditional support for Netanyahu's strategy (but not for Israel). The UK is going it alone with the pathetic Cameron as its spokesman. Hungary's Victor Orban merely prays for Israel's security.

There is something embarrassing about the European response to the crisis with Iran. The only thing that will come out of the European Council and the meeting of 27 foreign and defence ministers in Brussels is a common position to avoid regional escalation and a call for a ceasefire in the Middle East. This is a lot compared to the recent past. But it is insufficient. This way, any possibility of pressuring our ally with trade sanctions or arms embargoes vanishes. Obviously a conflict with the despicable regime in Tehran and its proxy Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iraq or Syria leaves that option off the table. No European government is going to lift a finger. That explains why the music of the twenty-seven's statement sounds more like a plea to Netanyahu than a serious admonition from "geopolitical Europe". Bravo "Bibi" for making Israel look like a superpower that takes no lessons from anyone. Bravo for neutralising the internal resistance of Israeli critics and society. Congratulations, Europe.

To top it all off, the EU is being a repeat offender in its use of double standards and a skewed reading of international law. The common position is to explore more sanctions on Iran; but forget about sanctions on Israeli perpetrators of the massacre in Gaza? A new screen and total forgetting that Bibi once fed Hamas and Iranian hawks and blew up the hard-won multilateral nuclear deal the EU negotiated in 2015. Does no one in Brussels understand that this is not a mere anecdote? That others have memories. That this has practical repercussions with dozens of friendly governments in Africa, Latin America sympathetic to Palestine, and also in the face of the war in Ukraine, the return of territories or the action of international tribunals. Double standards are the worm in the European foreign policy apple. Equal parts irresponsibility and impotence. It remains to be seen what consequences all this will have on the European parliamentary elections in June.

At the moment in Europe there are only two leaders who are heroically fighting in the right direction on this issue. One is High Representative Josep Borrell ("let us not forget Gaza and what is happening there"). The other is Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, who has found in this issue a strong thread to connect domestic and international politics. Both are trying to make it different this time, pushing for a reasonable solution, in a somewhat marginal and borderline contradictory position (say, from the heart of Europe but at the same time south of the Global North: non-belligerent, legalistic, etc.).

The Spanish president's position illustrates the underlying battle: how to interpret 'geopolitical Europe' from an ethically coherent position. In his line, Sánchez is almost single-handedly risking a new current in Europe. But for this differentiated gamble to bear fruit, strong allies are needed, in Europe but also within Spain, among public opinion and political forces. The question is to what extent Spain and others who join in - Belgium, Ireland, Sweden - can tighten the noose to force another common position beyond the current minimums. 

The game is still open, Netanyahu may lose if he finds a sustained leadership opposite, outside and inside Israel. The good news is that there are governments in the region - the Saudis, Jordan, Egypt, the Emirates - tired of the Middle Eastern tale of the suicidal scorpion stinging the frog and both going down. Some are exploring the path between realpolitik, justice and the general interest of prosperity in the region. President Sánchez has interpreted that Spain should be there.

It looks like a long EU foreign policy war with itself has begun, where there will be winners, losers, hostages and some collateral victims.
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