The rising death toll in Gaza, punctuated by yet another Israeli strike this weekend on a UN compound sheltering Palestinian civilians, has put Europe's top leaders in an awkward position. More so than in the United States, public opinion in countries in the European Union has been largely opposed to Israel's offensive against the Islamist group Hamas, which has led to the deaths of more than 1800 Palestinians living in the cramped, blockaded Gaza Strip. But Europe's position on the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians often moves in lockstep with the US, with whom it coordinates a decades-old peace process that has born little fruit.
OPINION: Strong denunciation of Israel's latest actions by both the UN and American officials — the latest shelling was deemed "disgraceful" by US State Department spokesman Jen Psaki — were heard across the Atlantic as well.
On Monday, as European governments marked the centennial of the start of World War I, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius condemned the "carnage" unleashed upon Gaza: "How many more deaths must there be to stop what must be called the carnage in Gaza? The tradition of friendship between France and Israel is old and Israel's right to security is total, but this right does not justify the killing of children and the massacre of civilians."
Throughout its now month-long Operation Protective Edge, Israel has pinned the blame on Hamas and other militant outfits based in Gaza, which have been firing hundreds of rockets into Israel. Israel says it painstakingly seeks to avoid civilian casualties and that it is Hamas' fault that the lives of so many Palestinians in Gaza are put at risk by the ongoing violence.
That argument, though, appears to be convincing fewer and fewer people. In her statement, Psaki noted that the coordinates of the UN school-turned-safe haven had been repeatedly relayed to Israeli authorities. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon called the attack on it a "moral outrage and a criminal act". In a new poll, some two-thirds of the British respondents believe that Israel is now committing "war crimes," while a series of other polls all document the waning of support for Israel in the West, particularly among younger generations.
French President Francois Hollande echoed his foreign minister on the sidelines of a World War I commemoration. "How can we remain neutral, when in Gaza a deadly conflict endures for nearly a month?" Hollande said. "There is an obligation to act."
But how? A lasting peace still seems a distant prospect, despite the efforts of the US and various regional mediators. Officials in Brussels have called on Hamas to disarm and Israel to cease its military actions immediately, but that is more a hopeful wish than a practicable demand. The return of the EU's Middle East peace envoy, Tony Blair, who achieved little despite years of summitry, is enough to deepen one's cynicism.
Earlier this year, the EU ambassador to Israel said improving trade ties with the European bloc would hinge on progress toward a two-state solution. But that dangled carrot had little effect on an Israeli political establishment that, as explained here, doesn't appear to be that interested in allowing the creation of a separate Palestinian state. A host of EU countries have published warnings urging their citizens to refrain from any kind of business with enterprises that are linked to Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories, whose presence is considered illegal under international law. According to the Economist, some European firms have sold their stakes in Israeli banks that finance settlement construction, while the largest public Dutch water utility cut ties with its Israeli counterpart, which takes water from the West Bank and sells it back to the Palestinians living there.
All the while, the streets of European cities have been the staging ground for heated protests over the past few weeks against Israel's campaign in Gaza and continued occupation of Palestinian territory. Some dismiss these demonstrations, pointing to reports of anti-Semitic violence and rhetoric on the part of Arab and Muslim immigrants living in Europe. But the incidents of racism are small compared to the genuine public anger over Israeli actions. "Ninety-five per cent of demonstrators have nothing against Jews," a French government official told the Economist.
Many European governments, of course, have a sense of responsibility toward Israel. Zionism and the quest for a Jewish state emerged after centuries of European mistreatment and marginalization of Jews. Germany, in particular, carries a unique moral burden; its Chancellor Angela Merkel has been dogged in her support of Israel. "Merkel shows only solidarity with Israel," a pro-Palestinian protester in Berlin told The Washington Post's Anthony Faiola. "Because of Germany's past, she cannot be open-minded."
But while governments are not tabling sanctions or threatening tough action, the mood in the continent has palpably changed. The Economist raises the specter of "delegitimisation" — of Europe losing its conviction in Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state as long as the current conditions persist. "Gone are the days when Israel, with its kibbutzim, was a darling of idealistic young Europeans," says the Economist. "Faded, too, the idea of Israel as vulnerable and poor, encircled by massed armies."
This drift is mirrored in Israel itself, where the right-wing government in power is buoyed by voters who care less about the opinions of the international community than their primacy over the Holy Land. The Economist offers an important, stark note of concern:
The secular and social-democratic leanings of Israel's early decades dovetailed with western Europe's. But the 1m migrants from the former Soviet Union, who arrived in the 1990s, have scant democratic tradition; many seek salvation in a strongman, a Jewish Putin, to rescue Israel from its enemies.
A similar number of national-religious Jews, heavily represented in government, see Israel as part of the divine plan for the Messiah's coming, and worry that democracy might get in the way. More often now, Israel finds it easier to deal with non-democratic regimes, in the region or in the Asia-Pacific, where politics intrudes less on business. All of that bodes ill for co-operation with the country's European critics and perhaps its American ones too.
Tharoor writes about foreign affairs for The Washington Post. He previously was a senior editor at TIME, based first in Hong Kong and later in New York.
-The Washington Post