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Peace Summit in Egypt Shows a Shift in Rhetoric but no Consensus

Leaders, foreign ministers and diplomats from dozens of Arab, European, African and other countries gathered in Cairo on Saturday for a “peace summit” aimed at de-escalating the violence in Gaza. But after hours of speeches, they had little to show for the trip other than a gaping divide, as Arab leaders castigated Western countries for their silence on Israel’s airstrikes on Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

“The message the Arab world is hearing is loud and clear,” King Abdullah II of Jordan said in his remarks. “Palestinian lives matter less than Israeli ones. Our lives matter less than other lives. The application of international law is optional, and human rights have boundaries — they stop at borders, they stop at races and they stop at religions.”

One goal of any summit is to end in a joint statement that all the countries in attendance can agree on. But European leaders arrived in Cairo knowing they could not sign Egypt’s draft declaration, which did not mention Israel’s right to defend itself against Hamas, according to European diplomats and officials involved in the summit preparations.

“Like any other country in the world, Israel has the right to defend itself and to defend its people against this terror,” the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, said in a speech at the summit, though she added that the defense must be “within the framework of international law.”

In the end, there was no statement.

Still, the remarks of several European leaders made clear that the soaring civilian death toll and looming humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza had forced a subtle shift in rhetoric. While reiterating Israel’s right to defend itself, the European leaders on Saturday uniformly called on Israel to act according to international law and urged greater protections for Palestinian civilians, points that had received less emphasis in the first few days after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks on Israeli civilians.

And despite the lack of a summit declaration, European officials said leaders from Greece, Cyprus, Italy and Spain, as well as the president of the European Council, Charles Michel, were eager to show up in Cairo, if only to demonstrate to their Arab partners that they were concerned about civilians in Gaza.

In much of the Muslim world, the Western response has sparked criticism of hypocrisy and double standards for its failure to condemn the siege and Israel’s airstrikes on civilians in Gaza — which critics said was the same sort of violence Western countries readily described as a “war crime” when Russia invaded Ukraine.

Outrage over those perceived double standards was on display at the Cairo summit, where leader after leader of Arab countries mourned the thousands of Palestinian civilians who have died in Israeli airstrikes since Oct. 7.

“Anywhere else, attacking civilian infrastructure and deliberately starving an entire population of food, water and basic necessities would be condemned,” King Abdullah said. “Accountability would be enforced.”

The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, who is the most visible leader speaking for the European Union, added fuel to those charges with several missteps on her watch, including the unilateral announcement by one of her commissioners, later withdrawn, that the bloc would suspend aid to Gaza after the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. She did not attend the summit in Cairo, sending one of her deputies instead.

In more recent days, as the humanitarian situation within Gaza has worsened and the civilian death toll grown, it has become clear that European leaders want to send a different signal — though one that is still likely to sound too muted to Arab ears.

“Collective punishment is prohibited by the laws of war,” said Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece’s prime minister, in an apparent admonishment of Israel. “When war must be conducted, there are limits to what can be done to human beings. A total siege is against international law.”

Every Western official at the summit mentioned the need to ensure a steady flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza, and several countries announced at the summit that they would increase their funding for such aid. Ms. von der Leyen has also announced a tripling of aid to the Palestinians. (The bloc is the largest donor of aid to the Palestinians.)

And while the rest of the world might see a European Union fully aligned with Israel, within the bloc, complaints about Ms. von der Leyen’s staunchly pro-Isreal posture have grown, even triggering a rare letter of complaint by European Commission staff members, who are usually both avowedly neutral and afraid for their career prospects in the E.U. executive branch.

The letter, which was addressed to Ms. von der Leyen personally, signed by some 850 staffers and first reported by Euractiv, accused her of a “patent show of double-standards” and said the Commission had given a “free hand to the acceleration and legitimacy of a war crime in the Gaza Strip.”

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