EU in disarray over Gaza crisis
The European Union appears to be squandering its opportunity to step in as the leading peacebroker in the Middle East thanks to its chaotic handling of the crisis.
EU leaders have contradicted one another on their stance towards Israel since its offensive on Gaza began ten days ago and the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, today added to the confusion by going on his own, personal peacekeeping mission, despite an official EU delegation already being on the ground.
The disarray began last week when the Czechs, who have just taken up the rotating EU Presidency, sparked anger with a statement that seemed to support Israeli strikes on Gaza, describing it as "more defensive than offensive". The statement, apparently a gaffe by a spokesman, was then hastily withdrawn. Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg, described it as a "personal error, it happens to everyone, to me too when I was young."
Too many cooks?
On Monday, officials in Brussels were at pains to clarify the situation, calling for an immediate ceasefire to the violence both by the Palestinian group Hamas and by Israel.
However, it was still not clear who would take the upper hand in the negotiations in Jerusalem and Ramallah: Mr Sarkozy or the so-called 'troika' of EU ministers, including Sarkozy's own Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner. EU Commission spokesman Amadeu Altafaj said:
"We do have an official delegation on the ground. So as regards Mr Sarkozy's visit to the same region, we'd say that any contribution is welcome as long as the message remains the same. It's not about who is delivering the message."
But the plethora of actors in the region is an embarrassing illustration of the EU's persistent inability to speak with one voice on foreign policy issues, at a time when the change of power in the White House - Israel's main interlocutor - presents it with a golden opportunity to take a leading role in the region. The Netherlands, for instance, traditionally backs Israel, while France has appeared to side with the Palestinians in the conflict.
Masked Palestinian militants from Islamic Jihad run with homemade rockets to put in place before later firing them into Israel on the outskirts of Gaza City
Sarkozy carries on regardless
It also suggests Mr Sarkozy's unwillingness to give up the reigns of the EU to the Czechs, despite the fact that his own six-month stint at the helm of the EU ended last month. The energetic French leader became a ubiquitous figure during his tenure, muscling in in every crisis, but his ongoing interventions may do more harm than good.
The EU has also not seen eye-to-eye with Washington, which has failed to call for a clear ceasefire. Britain's Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, said
"This is a very dangerous moment. This is a moment where all the hopes of the peace process are falling apart in the action that's being taken. So what we need is an immediate ceasefire."
Israel is seeking an international mechanism to prevent Hamas from rearming as part of any deal to end its Gaza offensive and stem Palestinian rocket fire, officials said on Monday. Since Sunday, the Jewish state has engaged in intensive discussion with its allies - including the United States, the European Union and some Arab states - to work on the outlines of a possible agreement on the Gaza Strip.
Smoke rises after an Israel air strike in Gaza Strip December 28, 2008. Israel launched air strikes on Gaza for a second successive day on Sunday, piling pressure on Hamas
US President-elect Barack Obama has been silent on the crisis, his advisers saying only President George W Bush would speak for Washington until Mr Obama is sworn in on 20 January. The Bush administration has supported Israel, saying Hamas had to halt rocket fire at Israel for a truce to take shape.
Vanessa Mock in Brussels
Photo credit: Amir Farshad Ebrahimi