The continuing war in Gaza has transformed Czech plans as to what needs to be done during the six-month EU presidency.
Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg has taken over the position of one of the EU leaders early on and started to prepare a European reaction to Israeli attacks in the Gaza Strip.
The EU and the Czechs as leaders will, alongside the US, now play the main role in calming the situation.
The Israeli offensive has claimed 345 victims, according to Sunday evening reports. The UN says at least 57 of the dead were civilians.
Schwarzenberg wanted to spend the last days of “peace” before the start of the presidency at a cottage in Austria with his family. He is at the cottage, but he is spending his days on the phone dealing with the Gaza situation. “Theoretically, I was supposed to be on holiday but Hamas and Israel spoiled my plans. I got in touch with my colleagues. I am gathering opinions and trying to find out whether we will need to meet earlier,” the minister said Sunday.
The first meeting of the EU foreign ministers concerning Israel has been called for Monday by the French, but after that it is the Czechs who will be leading the club. Nothing divides the 27 EU countries so much as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the relations with Russia. The Czechs will also have to coordinate the EU reaction to the new US administration.
“It will be difficult. The Czechs will have to find a common EU position concerning the Israeli attacks and think up a solution of the acute humanitarian situation,” said Jana Hybášková, MEP and expert on the Middle East. It is possible that thousands of people will have to be evacuated from Gaza in the following days.
“It is a total war against Hamas,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said Sunday. So far, only air raids continue. The raids destroyed a number of buildings and equipment used by the radical Hamas, including the Interior Ministry and the Islamic University, where the radicals are traditionally recruited.
Schwarzenberg, who will become one of the heads of EU politics for half a year, admits the possibility of an EU mission assess the situation, examining on which side the blame lies. A similar mission is underway in Georgia. “We are discussing whether it would be useful. Right now we are watching the news and discussing it,” Schwarzenberg said.
The Israeli attack is complicating the Czech hope for a diplomatic success: organising the first Europe-Israel summit since the World War II.
The Czechs have spent the past months trying to break the resistance of the countries that did not approve of the idea of an Israeli summit. There is no great hope of success after the Israeli bombing in Gaza. “I’m afraid this is collapsing. But I don’t want to jump to conclusions,” said Jana Hybášková.
Schwarzenberg refuses to give up on the summit. “We have been planning it for the end of our presidency, anyway, so we still have six months. And as one politician says, even a week is a long time in politics. It is better to wait and see,” he said.
The Czech presidency might not end under the shadow of Israel but it will certainly start there. The Middle East crisis will also be the first topic at the EU meeting that will be directed by the Czechs. It will take place on Monday morning when the EU civil servants will return from their Christmas holidays and will predominantly deal with the humanitarian situation in Gaza.
The Czechs will have to crack a hard diplomatic nut when it comes to Israel. They have been siding with Israel for a long time but now they will have to pretend to be neutral for six months. Moreover, the EU always tries to negotiate with both sides of the conflict. It is, however, impossible in this case. The EU has put a ban on negotiations with Hamas until Hamas fulfils three conditions: ends violence, acknowledges the Jewish state and accepts the contracts signed earlier by Israel and Palestine.
The EU is in the meantime also “sponsoring” life on Palestinian land. It pays for local doctors, teachers and invests in basic infrastructure. In the last year, it sent almost half a billion euro to help the Palestinians.
Translated with permission by the Prague Daily Monitor.