What’s Best for Europe?

‘It is an interest rather than a principle that marches against Israel promote’

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What was Europe’s interest in Israel’s military offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip? Working to halt Israel’s military onslaught, thereby saving Hamas, or letting Israel achieve its goals at the cost of hundreds of lives? The former contradicts Europe’s official position on Hamas – it is a proscribed terrorist organisation, whose al-Aqsa TV station was banned from France’s main satellite carrier. The EU also accepts the Quartet’s formula of no talks with Hamas until it renounces violence, recognises Israel and embraces the Oslo Accords as a basis for negotiations. A ceasefire that left Hamas standing would repudiate all of the above and overnight turn it into a player the international community could no longer ignore, let alone ostracise. But the latter approach would put Europe on the side of the media-designated aggressor, in a war depicted – no fact-checking needed – as one of the worst humanitarian crises of our times.

And so, characteristically, Europe did both – it criticised Israel’s “disproportionate response” but went on to engage in an elaborate diplomatic dance that started late, progressed slowly, achieved nothing and ended up becoming a cover for Israel to continue. Arab governments, famous for saying one thing while doing (or supporting) the opposite, could not have done better.

This is a case of squaring the circle. Even as Europe was swept by one of the coldest winters on record, demonstrators took to the streets to demand swift action, showing their genuine outrage at the inability of their leaders to stop the killing and the suffering. As Timothy Garton Ash said in the Guardian, “The Gaza war is a negation of every principle for which Europe claims to stand.” How could EU leaders contradict the street and the laureates of Oxford? And yet, they should have.

The problem with Garton Ash’s assertion – and with the sanctimony of the demonstrations – is one of consistency. One can express outrage in the name of human rights and other related values – in which case, this outrage should recur every time humanitarian crises visit defenceless civilian populations. But we know that the outrage of those who agitate for Palestine is selective. After all, without denying or diminishing the suffering and the loss of life in Gaza, the numbers are not as staggering as elsewhere. As recently noted by London-based writer Sali Tripathi, since the beginning of the second intifada in late 2000, there has been an average of just under 50 civilian deaths a month in the territories. By contrast, since 2003, an average of 1,400 civilians a month died a violent death in Iraq. In Afghanistan, the average monthly body count is 120. Now let’s venture into unfamiliar media terrain – African conflicts where journalists are scant and bodies abound. In Congo, the average monthly conflict-related deaths in the last ten years is 45,000 – more Congolese die in a month than Israelis and Palestinians combined since the second intifada began. In Sudan, there were approximately two million deaths in the past 17 years – that’s just under 10,000 a month, 200 times more than in Gaza.

The moment our leaders acknowledge this inconsistency of principles – the moment we point out their lack of urgency in calling for ceasefires unless the conflict involves Israel – it all comes down to interests. If outrage and “every principle for which Europe claims to stand” are what move European diplomacy in the Middle East, then the same should apply to every other humanitarian tragedy in the world. And yet, that is not so. Zimbabwe, where millions are starving or dying of cholera makes Gaza look mild by comparison, but there is no sign yet that Nicolas Sarkozy is leaving Carla to save Zimbabweans from their tyrant-made famine. Principles are universal; their application is particular. That politicians and marchers dress the promotion of interests under the rhetorical cover of universal platitudes can be excused, but not overlooked or ignored. Once it is clear that it is an interest rather than a principle that marches against Israel promote, we should be in a better position to answer the opening question – what serves Europe’s interests best?

First, Hamas is a significant obstacle to peace between Israel and the Palestinians, a settlement which Europe believes to be possible and vital. Saving Hamas from disgrace is thus not in Europe’s vital interests. Acting to stop Israel, by contrast, is against Europe’s interests and the demonstrators who demand this, often violently, clearly serve someone else’s interest. Second, and more importantly, since Hamas has become a wholly-owned Iranian franchise, and it is in Europe’s vital interests to contain Tehran’s ambitions in the Middle East, Europe should see to it that Iran’s proxies get a rough beating. Everyone who has Europe’s vital interests at heart should welcome Europe’s inability to stop Israel before it had achieved its military goals. An Israeli failure to deal Hamas a huge blow would spell more problems for Europe. Israel declared a ceasefire only when Hamas was on its knees, not when Europe demanded it. That, ironically, is in Europe’s true interest.