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The War Is Shifting Europe’s Politics Away From Israel

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In Europe, long a vital source of support for Israel, the political center of gravity is moving away from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

Spain, Ireland and Norway on Wednesday recognized Palestinian statehood, despite vehement Israeli and American opposition. And most European governments offered unequivocal support to the International Criminal Court this week, after it requested arrest warrants for Israel’s prime minister and defense minister, along with leaders of Hamas.

Israel still has staunch allies within the European Union, especially Hungary and the Czech Republic, and key players like Germany, despite growing discomfort with Israel’s conduct, have not shown any inclination to alter their stance. The growing fissures within Europe mean that the consensus-driven European Union will not change its positions any time soon.

But European countries face rising international and domestic pressure to take a firmer stand against Israel’s handling of the Palestinian territories, and particularly the devastating war in Gaza.

Among European Union members, Sweden has for a decade stood alone in recognizing Palestinian statehood. Europe has long supported the eventual creation of a Palestinian state — the “two-state solution” that Israel’s government steadfastly opposes — and voiced frustration with Israel’s handling of the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank, but most nations have been unwilling to go further.

Instead, the European Union, before the war, was moving closer to Israel, including through financially and politically important partnerships in trade and science.

The war, and the way it has evolved, are changing that. The sympathetic views that sustained European support for Israel after the Oct. 7 attacks is waning as the war continues, the humanitarian situation in Gaza worsens, and Israel looks to many people less like a victim and more like an aggressor.

Ireland and Spain, E.U. members, and Norway, a nation closely aligned with the bloc, took the next step on Wednesday, recognizing Palestinian statehood — a sharp rebuke to Israel, even if it has little practical effect and came as little surprise. The three European countries have been vocal in their criticism of Israel and support of the Palestinian cause, even as they have condemned Hamas and the brutal assault it led against Israel on Oct. 7.

If more of their neighbors follow their lead, the European Union could become a major counterweight to the American position that Palestinian statehood should only result from a negotiated settlement with Israel. That would deepen the rift between Europe and Israel.

There have been warnings and concerns, from Europe and other parts of the world, about Israel’s deadly and destructive campaign against Hamas in Gaza. Particular attention now turns to Belgium, another deeply pro-Palestinian E.U. country that has stepped up its criticism of how Israel is handling the war.

“We certainly have seen a growing chorus of voices, including voices that had previously been in support of Israel, drift in another direction,” Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, said at a news conference. “That is of concern to us because we do not believe that contributes to Israel’s long-term security or vitality.”

The European Union as a bloc has maintained its trade and other agreements with Israel, despite growing calls to sever or drastically limit them.

The majority of the 27 E.U. countries have held largely similar positions on the Israel-Hamas war since Oct. 7, and undergone similar shifts.

They began with revulsion at the Hamas-led attack that killed an estimated 1,200 people and captured more than 240 hostages, support for Israel’s right to defend itself and continued hope for a two-state solution. They called for restraint by Israel as it bombarded, blockaded and invaded Gaza. Then came outright, increasingly sharp criticism of an Israeli campaign that has killed about 35,000 people — combatants and civilians — so far, forced most Gazans to flee their homes, caused shortages of food and medicines, and leveled many of the territory’s buildings.

In standing by Israel, countries like Hungary and the Czech Republic may play a decisive role in determining what the European Union can and — especially — what it cannot do when it comes to the Middle East. Austria, too, has remained close to Israel while others have criticized it.

Foreign policy is a national prerogative jealously guarded by E.U. members that cede many other powers to the bloc. The group’s positions in international affairs can only be reached by unanimous consensus, making it unlikely that it will take a clear position on Israel and Palestine any time soon.

When the International Criminal Court’s prosecutor on Monday requested arrest warrants for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant of Israel, most European countries, and the E.U. itself, stopped short of taking an overt position on the move, but said that they respected the court’s independence.

But the Czech prime minister, Petr Fiala, said on social media that seeking the arrest of “the representatives of a democratically elected government together with the leaders of an Islamist terrorist organization is appalling and completely unacceptable.”

Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary called it “absurd and shameful.”

But Belgium’s foreign minister, Hadja Lahbib, said, “Crimes committed in Gaza must be prosecuted at the highest level, regardless of the perpetrators.”

The Foreign Ministry of France, the bloc’s second-largest nation, said that “France supports the International Criminal Court, its independence, and the fight against impunity in all situations.”

Recognizing a Palestinian state is “not taboo” for France, but the right moment has not yet come, the French foreign minister said on Wednesday after several European countries officially took the step. “This decision must be useful,” Stéphane Séjourné, the foreign minister, said in a statement.

Though France has refrained so far from acting on its own, last month it voted in favor of a U.N. Security Council resolution to recognize Palestine as a full member state of the United Nations. Britain, no longer in the European Union but still influential, abstained in that vote.

The United States, France and Britain are all permanent Security Council members, with the power to veto any action there. Only the United States used that power, demonstrating the widening divide with Europe.

The evolution of Germany’s stance will play an important role in determining the direction of E.U. relations with Israel. Germany is the bloc’s biggest member and has long expressed a unique commitment to Israel as a result of its Nazi history and the Holocaust.

Berlin started on the pro-Israel end of the E.U. spectrum in the immediate aftermath of Oct. 7, but now more openly criticizes the way Israel is conducting the war, and has called for an immediate cease-fire, in opposition to Israel and the United States.

At a news conference in Berlin, Kathrin Deschauer, a spokeswoman for the German Foreign Ministry, did not signal any change in her country’s stand when asked about the Spanish, Irish and Norwegian recognition of Palestine.

“An independent state of Palestine remains a firm goal of German foreign policy,” she said. It is an urgent matter, she added, but must come at the end of a “process of dialogue.”

Aurelien Breeden contributed reporting from Paris, and Christopher F. Schuetze from Berlin.

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