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EU’s calls for a Gaza cease-fire are rebuffed

With the U.S. caught in limbo between two presidencies, Europe is trying to fill the diplomatic void by assuming a greater role in the international effort to end the bloodshed in the Gaza Strip.

But a series of high-level official forays appears to have achieved little and once again laid the European Union open to criticism that it punches far below its weight in the diplomatic arena, if only because it can’t seem to decide who does the punching and how hard.

In the last few days, two separate European delegations descended on the Middle East. One was led by the Czech Republic, which assumed the rotating presidency of the EU last week, and the other by the man who reluctantly gave up that post, French President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Both delegations are urging a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas, the militant Palestinian group that rules Gaza.

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“Pressure should be exerted on all parties involved, including Hamas, in order for the guns to fall silent and peace to return,” Sarkozy said Tuesday in Damascus, the Syrian capital, after meeting with President Bashar Assad. “There is no military solution in Gaza.”

But European calls for a cease-fire have been rebuffed, reinforcing the impression that the only real power broker in the conflict is still the United States, which has not demanded an immediate truce.

In Washington, President-elect Barack Obama has remained relatively silent on the conflict, deferring to the Bush administration as the government in charge. By contrast, Europe has been beset by a Babel of official voices, which have sown confusion as to what the EU’s view is and who speaks for the continent.

Before the delegations arrived in the Middle East, a Czech official described the operation in Gaza as a “defensive” move in response to rockets launched by Hamas into Israeli territory. But the Swedish foreign minister contradicted that statement, blaming Israel for escalating the violence.

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Likewise, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown called last weekend for an immediate cease-fire. But his Dutch counterpart suggested that the Israeli government was entitled to respond militarily as long as Hamas continued to fire rockets.

And Sarkozy, though respected in diplomatic circles as an energetic leader, has had to answer criticism that he is mounting a unilateral effort detrimental to the credibility of the EU as a unified body.

“Here was an opportunity for the EU to take a diplomatic lead,” the Times of London said in an editorial Tuesday. “What it saw instead was an unseemly squabble,” brought on by “outbreaks of national candor.”

Turkey, which hopes to join the alliance, has separately proposed the idea of international monitors for any cease-fire and says that it is willing to contribute to such a mission.

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Beyond the differences of opinion and the difficulty of getting 27 member nations to agree on a single approach, the EU also has few levers available to influence Israel.

Last month, the union’s foreign ministers agreed to upgrade relations with Israel and forge closer political ties through regular meetings, despite longtime European opposition to Israeli policies regarding the Palestinian territories, particularly the expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. But that agreement to strengthen ties is too recent to have borne any fruit.

In addition, although the EU is a member of the so-called quartet of international mediators involved in the Middle East peace process, the U.S. has always been the group’s dominant force and the one to which Israel pays most heed.

“Politically they [the Europeans] are in a slightly weak position. They don’t have any direct political leverage,” said Claire Spencer, a Middle East expert at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.

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Last summer, the EU and Israel agreed to free trade in several sectors, but there has been little talk during the current conflict of suspending that liberalization or using economic measures against Israel.

“If you look at actually what’s happened and how they’ve reacted, some of the statements may have been more critical or harsher, but if you look at what they actually do -- the penalties and costs to Israel because of this -- it’s really rather slim,” Spencer said.

Public opinion is another matter. Demonstrations against Israel’s Gaza incursion have attracted thousands of protesters throughout Europe.

The anger is feeding concerns about a rise in anti-Semitic violence. On Monday, a synagogue in southern France was attacked by assailants who tried to ram its gates with a car. In London, police are investigating a possible arson attempt at a synagogue, the Associated Press reported.

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henry.chu@latimes.com


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