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Israeli no-show at EU-Med meet deepens divisions

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In this week’s edition: Israel-Gaza diplomacy, Ukraine accession woes and an exclusive interview with EU’s top general.

BARCELONA, SPAIN – Israel’s absence from an EU-Med summit is expected to further test Europe’s Middle East diplomacy, with Arab states and EU countries meeting amid a shaky ceasefire in the Gaza Strip.

A Union for the Mediterranean (UfM) ministerial meeting in Barcelona on Monday (27 November) – which includes foreign ministers from the EU plus Middle Eastern and North African states – is meant to discuss the fallout of the Israel-Gaza war and its consequences for the region.

Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority (PA) are members of the Mediterranean grouping along with neighbours Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt and Syria (currently suspended).

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, whose country holds the rotating EU presidency, last week described the meeting as an “ideal place” to relaunch Israeli-Palestinian dialogue as the two sides would “sit on an equal footing” there.

Madrid has been trying to play a leading role in shaping Europe’s response to Israel’s war with Hamas following the 7 October terror attacks on Israel, in which Israel has killed more than 13,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-controlled Gaza Health Ministry.

Sánchez has also been pushing to organise an international peace conference between Israelis and Palestinians and discussed the idea as recently as this week with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

But while the foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia and Tunisia are expected to take part in the meeting, Israel will not send its representative.

“The UfM has decided to change the original agenda and focus solely on the current conflict without consulting Israel,” the Israeli Mission to the EU told Euractiv, adding the decision would “undermine” the purpose of the forum.

“This carries the risk of transforming it into another international forum in which Arab states bash Israel. Therefore, Israel does not intend to participate in the meeting,” they added.

Asked about the Israeli complaints, an EU official said the no-show was “regrettable”, “but as they are a full member of the forum, it is their choice that they’re not coming”.

“It was not possible not to do anything on Gaza as the situation is dire and requires to be addressed,” they added.

The snub comes as Tel Aviv has become locked in a diplomatic dispute with Spain and Belgium after it accused the two countries of supporting terrorism in response to their prime minister’s criticism of its bombardment of Gaza.

The Israeli and Spanish foreign ministers exchanged harsh words and summoned each other’s ambassadors for reprimands over the weekend while Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and his Belgian counterpart Alexander De Croo continued a visit to the Middle East.

Speaking in Jerusalem alongside Netanyahu on Thursday (23 November), Sánchez had said the number of civilians killed by Israeli attacks on Gaza was “unbearable”, with De Croo expressing similar sentiments in a speech at the Rafah border crossing.

Sánchez also said Spain would be open to unilaterally recognising a Palestinian state even “if the European Union does not,” in a departure from his previous stance amid demands from his left-wing coalition partner Sumar.

The comments of the two European leaders drew a sharp response from Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who criticised the remarks by the two prime ministers as “false statements” made “in support of terrorism.”

Spanish Foreign Minister José Manuel Albares said in a statement the accusations were “totally false and unacceptable.”

“We categorically reject them,” Albares said, adding that the Spanish prime minister has publicly and repeatedly defended Israel’s right to self-defence.

With Israel’s absence in Barcelona, the meeting on Monday, however, risks further exposing further differences between EU members, as well as vis a vis the Arab states.

Over the past weeks, Europeans have largely split into two camps, with Spain, France and Portugal calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, while Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria and Hungary dismissed such a step as contradictory to Israel’s right to defend itself.

Arab countries are expected to present a more united front against Israel and call for a permanent ceasefire and humanitarian aid for the Palestinians in Gaza.

EU chief diplomat Josep Borrell, who co-chairs the forum and has just returned from a trip to the Middle East, is expected to discuss ideas for an EU draft roadmap looking at the future after the fighting ends.

Its initial elements were broadly discussed among EU foreign ministers earlier this month, but it remains uncertain how the bloc would ensure buy-in from regional players.

Only two months ago, the EU pushed plans to help lead a new ‘incentives’-focused Middle East peace initiative, aimed at re-starting talks between Israel and Palestine, which got a positive response across the region.

But recent accusations of pro-Israel bias and ‘double standards’ over the war in Gaza have raised fears that such acrimony could undermine diplomatic support for Ukraine in the Global South and the EU’s ability to insist on human rights clauses in international agreements.

“We do have to expect that positions will remain very far apart, between us Europeans, but also with some more radically anti-Israeli states in the region,” one EU diplomat said ahead of the talks.

“And then the decisive question for any ‘day after’ is how much credibility we actually will have left,” they added.

EU IN THE WORLD

PALESTINE AID| No EU development funds earmarked for Palestine have found their way to Hamas, the European Commission announced earlier this week as part of a review ordered after the 7 October Hamas-led terrorist attack on Israel. It, however, did call for stricter controls going forward.

DEFENCE CORNER

CRISIS FORCE | The EU should use its common budget as an incentive to make member states commit more capabilities and personnel to the bloc’s future crisis response force, the EU’s top general, Robert Brieger, told Euractiv in an exclusive interview.

RAMPING-UP | Increasing ammunition production in Europe is in the hands of national governments, who can re-prioritise orders, Internal Market Commissioner Thierry Breton said, amid concerns that the EU may fail to send the planned one million rounds of ammunition to Ukraine by March.

ENLARGEMENT LATEST

ACCESSION TALKS WOES | European Council President Charles Michel made his way to Kyiv earlier this week on yet another reassurance mission by a high-ranking EU official, just three weeks before a decisive end-of-year EU summit over support to Ukraine. Read our dispatch here and here.

ON OUR RADAR

Southern Neighbourhood Ministerial Meeting| Monday, 27 November 2023| Barcelona, Spain
EU trade ministers meet on WTO Ministerial preparation, interim trade agreement with Chile and EU-US trade relations| Monday, 27 November 2023| Brussels, Belgium
NATO foreign ministers meet| Tue-Wed, 28-29 November 2023| Brussels, Belgium
UN Security Council meeting on Israel-Palestinian issues| Wednesday, 29 November 2023| United Nations, United States
30th OSCE Ministerial Council| Thu-Fri, 30 November – 1 December 2023| Skopje, North Macedonia
European Defence Agency Annual Conference| Thursday, 30 November | Brussels, Belgium
United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP28)| Thu-Tue, 30 November – 12 December 2023| Dubai, United Arab Emirates
EU-China Summit| Thu-Fri, 7-8 December 2023| Beijing, China
EU foreign ministers meet on Ukraine, Gaza, current affairs| Wednesday, 11 December 2023| Brussels, Belgium
EU-Western-Balkans Summit| Wednesday, 13 December 2023| Brussels, Belgium
Russia’s President Putin to hold public Q&A session TBC| Wednesday, 13 December 2023 | Moscow, Russia
EU leaders to decide on Ukraine, Moldova accession talks, discuss MFF review| Thu-Fri, 14-15 December 2023| Brussels, Belgium
Serbia national election| Sunday, 17 December 2023| Serbia

PREVIOUS EDITIONS

[Edited by Benjamin Fox]

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