Written by Fabio Ashtar Telarico

Edited by Luca Saviolo and Cristina Perez

The argument that Ukraine and Israel are fighting ‘the same war on two fronts’ is informing EU policy towards these two conflicts. But is this actually the case? How do wars in Israel and Ukraine reflect on the EU’s global standing? And what are the consequences of these arguments from a Euro-pragmatic point of view trying to balance the EU’s need for consistency in its value-based foreign policy with limited economic resources and military capabilities?



Since February 2022, every meeting of EU foreign ministers has focused on the ongoing war between Russia and Ukraine (Filippino & Foy, 2023). At least until Hamas’s attack on Israel in October 2023 (Foy & Chazan, 2023). And this sudden shift of priorities created no shortness of worries amongst Ukrainian officers, with Kiev and Tel Aviv ‘vying for Brussels’s attention.’ (Filippino & Foy, 2023)

Rather, as soon as information about the attacks against Israel came to light, the EU foreign policy establishment declared that it ‘stands in solidarity with Israel, which has the right to defend itself’ (Borrell, 2023a). And even more staunchly pro-Israeli positions were uttered by the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen (Shankar, 2023b). However, not all member states are on board with this formulation’s ethical assumptions (cf. Gray et al., 2023; Shankar, 2023b). Yet, the choice of terms, such as solidarity and defend itself arguably suggest the intent of drawing a parallel between Ukraine’s and Israel’s position.

The dominant argument in favour of this strategy is very simple: Ukraine and Israel are fighting ‘the same war on two fronts’ (Goldberg, 2023; AP, 2023; Sedlacek, 2023). But the truth is that there are ‘[l]ots of small and big fires everywhere – and we [the EU] have no good fire extinguisher at hand’ (Brzozowski, 2023). Besides the objective lack of material resources (Filippino & Foy, 2023), the EU has political and economic reasons to adopt a different stance towards these two conflicts. Not least because its ability to manoeuvre in the international arena is still largely dependent on the projection of ‘normative power’ (see: Manners, 2002; Diez & Pace, 2011), especially as it is losing the ability to act effectively in other realms according to some analysts. As an illustration, the EU’s ‘trade power’ was never particularly firm (Meunier & Nicolaïdis, 2007), its ‘regulatory power’ is widely contested (Quaglia, 2014; Young, 2016; Eckert 2021), and its strategic narratives struggle to take hold (Chaban et al., 2019) .

Thus, the only viable vector for a consistent EU foreign policy is Euro-pragmatism (cf. the use of the term in Meunier & Nicolaïdis, 2007). For instance, a grand bargain over long-term peace in the Middle East with Saudi Arabia and Egypt would be worth overlooking their regimes’ authoritarian nature (as Barnes-Dacey & Lovatt, 2022 argue). Meanwhile, some economic cost could be shouldered to ensure that the trade deal with Vietnam empowered local trade unions (Marslev & Staritz, 2023).

In other words, from this perspective, the EU’s foreign policy can be consistently value-based in the sense of emphasising the importance of values such as democracy, human rights, and the rule of law as the way to a more stable and prosperous world. But, at the same time, it must remain pragmatic in prioritising the allocation of scarce resources to the causes that best serve the member states’ collective interests. And this applies especially to hard-to-replenish military stockpiles (Ridgwell 2023) and limited economic resources in the context of severe fiscal and monetary shocks combined with long-term negative trends (Fernald et al 2023).

A Euro-pragmatic view: Who wants to support whom?

In 2022, Russia’s decision to turn the ongoing hostilities in Ukraine into a full-scale war seemed to pose challenges to the EU’s foreign policy (e.g., Rabbi et al., 2023; Saktiawan et al., 2022). After all, the EU had accumulated much experience dealing with low-intensity conflicts in the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Africa during the 2000s. However, the Union and its member states had not dealt with a conventional war in their immediate neighbourhood since the Yugoslav wars in the 1990s. And, even then, the EU’s ability to act coherently and efficiently was negligible (Belloni, 2009). Yet, with the institutional reforms of the 2000s and the introduction of the common foreign and security policy, Brussels has improved its ability to deal with non-conventional, low-intensity, and insurrectional scenarios. And it is managing to project a consistent stance on the Russo-Ukrainian war (Bergmann et al., 2023). In doing so, EU authorities have persuaded both national public and international partners that the EU can play an active role in Ukraine despite persistently different national preferences (Way 2022; Fiott 2023).

But 2023 is bringing about an even harder challenge. On October 7, Israel witnessed an unprecedented attack encompassing land, air, and sea assaults that claimed civilian lives (Macaron, 2023). Before Israelis and international observers could recover from the shock, the attackers revealed their identity and announced the kidnapping of 200 hostages (Devereux & Balmer, 2023). Unsurprisingly, given previous intelligence reports (Perry, 2023), Hamas, a militant group whose political wing has been in control of the Gaza Strip since 2007, claimed the attack.

In both cases, the EU’s ability to execute an effective foreign policy relies on sufficient buy-in from national political elites or public opinion. But the first manifestations of elite disagreement (Gray et al., 2023; Shankar, 2023b) prove that equalling Ukraine and Israel is politically unsustainable. After all, the EU top-brass are vociferously supporting both Ukraine’s and Israel’s position, notably lacking strong support from both governments and electors on the latter (cf. Smith, 2023 for polling data from July 2023; Gray et al., 2023; and Shankar, 2023b on governmental dissent).

Intra-elite disagreements on the Israel-Hamas conflict

Indeed, most member states rallied around the Israeli flag metaphorically as well as materially and, the EU declared the intent to suspend € 691 million in aid to Palestine in an unexpectedly quick turn of events (Shankar, 2023a).. Even more so in comparison to the decision-making process that led to a common position on concrete sanctions against Russia. But Brussels changed position shortly after due to strong opposition from some member states (Gray et al., 2023). Not to mention that over 800 EU diplomats signed an open letter calling out the Union’s ‘uncontrolled’ support of Israel (Shankar, 2023b).

Apparently, the Israeli-Palestinian issue drives a wedge amongst national elites more than the war in Ukraine. In fact, not only did several national governments oppose the EU Commissioner for Neighbourhood and Enlargement Oliver Varhelyi’s announcement of a unilateral aid suspension (Varhelyi 2023). Notably, Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg and Ireland were only the loudest, but many others are rowing against the tide, too (Gray et al., 2023).

Public opinion on Ukraine and Israel

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a dilemma for almost all EU electorates, too. In general, there are highly polarised minorities supporting either side and a large swath of undecided (Figure 1). In contrast, public opinion on the Russo-Ukrainian war consistently shows pluralities opposing continued aid to Ukraine in several countries (Figure 2).

Figure 1 Public opinion in the EU is markedly split on the Israeli-Palestinian issue (Polling done in July 2023 and published in: Smith, 2023)

However, these preferences do not find articulation amongst political elites. In fact, several governments have already pushed back against supporting Israel unconditionally, whereas Hungary is the only member state calling for a discontinuation of military aid to Ukraine (see Antezza et al. 2022). Such a gap between popular preferences and their political articulation poses a serious risk to EU institutions’ ability to implement an authentically popular international policy.

Figure 2 Pluralities in several EU countries favour immediate peace in Ukraine at any cost (Data source: Krastev & Leonard, 2022)

An ethically pragmatic view: Is Russia’s behaviour less tolerable than Hamas’s?

It is now rather consensual to argue that the EU’s influence in global politics does not derive from its economic and military might (Diez & Pace, 2011), at least not primarily (see also Orbie, 2006). Rather, the EU’s strength lies in its capacity to promote and export its own rules and values through diplomatic, economic, and cultural means (see Neuman, 2019; Dandashly & Noutcheva, 2022 and other articles in that special issue for theoretical talking points). Examples of such conduct are evident in the EU’s external human rights policy (Jenichen, 2022; Taylor, 2022) as well as in AI (Ulnicane 2022), public and cultural diplomacy (Chaban & Elgström, 2020; Mäkinen et al 2023), as well as trade policy (see, e.g., Marslev & Staritz, 2023). Crucially, this ability does not rest on the Union’s economic and political weight but on the legitimacy and appeal of its declared values-based approach to foreign policy.

However, the EU has attempted to distance itself from US military actions. While only sporadically (most notably the Second Gulf War), almost all shifts in US foreign-policy posture is punctually emulated in the EU (Serfati, 2004). For example, the US’ adoption of an increasingly adversarial stance vis-à-vis China has driven the EU to toughen its own approach regardless of the Union’s own best interest (Varoufakis 2023). Not to mention that enthusiasm for ‘overseas force-projection’ is scarce everywhere but in France (Kempin & Mawdsley, 2013, p. 69). And, by thus reproducing its dependence on US power (Meijer & Brooks, 2021), the EU has often endangered the basis of its own power. The forced, politically unsustainable equivalence between Ukraine and Israel seems to be another such case  (cf. the wording in Borrell, 2023b with that in Biden’s speech reported by AP, 2023; as well as Goldberg, 2023; and Sedlacek, 2023).

Yet, unlike the US, the EU has pragmatic incentives to draw stark distinctions between the two conflicts. In fact, the value-based component of US foreign policy is merely a ‘myth’ (Kane, 2003). Practically many administrations discarded all humanitarian and ethical concerns when necessary. And they could afford to do so because the US enjoys political, military, energy, and economic hegemony. Hence, they do not need normative power to project their influence across the globe. In contrast, values are front-and-centre to the essence and effectiveness of EU foreign policy (see in Borrell 2023b; Treaty on the EU, art. 2; cf. analyses in Hill, 2015, pp. 9-15; Keukeleire & Delreux, 2022, pp. 205ff). Thus, any lack of coherence or loss of credibility can cost dearly to the EU’s international standing (Nicolaïdis & Howse, 2002; and cf. Aydın-Düzgit & Noutcheva, 2022; Dandashly & Noutcheva, 2022). And only an autonomous foreign policy can safeguard the EU’s normative power from progressive depletion due to US interference.

Hence, the EU’s approach to these conflicts ought to start from a pragmatic premise. But, pragmatically speaking, Hamas is no Russia, Ukraine is no Israel, and the whole Ukraine-Israel comparison is misconstrued.

Hamas is no Russia

Firstly, the danger Hamas poses to Israel is not comparable to Russia’s menace to Ukraine (Tooze & Abadi, 2023). One the one hand, there is a relatively small, underfinanced, low-tech paramilitary organisation resorting to terrorist modes of operation. On the other, a former superpower, with large financial resources, endless military stockpiles, and international backing conducting a conventional land invasion.

Mostly, the comparison between the two is motivated by the speaker’s interests in linking the two conflicts. Predictably, Ukraine’s president Volodymir Zelensky fully supports this agenda (VoA, 2023). After all, it shields the country from potential reductions in aid (as Hawley, 2023 immediately vented). And it is not a coincidence that news outlets and figures close to US President Joe Biden have been pushing the ‘same war’ rhetoric (Goldberg, 2023; Niall Ferguson, 2023). 

Indeed, President Biden himself is inviting Congress to pass a resolution guaranteeing aid for both Ukraine and Israel (Romo & Shivaram, 2023) as the only way for his administration to bypass Republican opposition in the House. In doing so, Washington can achieve two goals: Foremost, sweeping under the rug NATO’s failure to ‘make a strategic case for more funding or articulate an endgame for the Russia-Ukraine war’ (Heritage Foundation, 2023), while, at the same time, ensuring that its main ally in the Near East has broad international backing to deal with this crisis.

Ukraine is no Israel

Ukraine and Israel are fighting for different reasons. Factually, Israel’s war against Hamas aims at solving a largely domestic dispute between a non-state actor and a sovereign entity (Tooze & Abadi, 2023). Neither Hamas’s nor Israel’s ultimate goal is merely (re)acquiring territory. Rather, they are fighting for the right of the people they claim to represent to live peacefully and prosper.

Contrarily, Russia and Ukraine are two states fighting over the control of a piece of land. Despite the sophisticated rhetorical devices both sides are deploying, given that  no systematic shelling of civilians and civilian infrastructure is taking place (Max Boot, 2023). And the Russo-Ukrainian war is not a dispute for the ‘right to happiness’. But rather a quest for power on the chessboard of world politics. As a leading Ukrainian historian (Plokhy, 2023) wrote, Ukraine is not just a victim of Russia, but its equal — something that Israel cannot find in Hamas.

Do not equate Russia and Israel

Undeniably, Israel and Russia are fighting their wars in different ways. Although the fog of war has got thicker since the emergence of social media, one thing is certain. At the time of writing, the Israeli armed forces dropped approximately 4,000 tonnes of explosives in their operation in Gaza (France 24, 2023), including multiple instances of use of weapon systems prohibited under the Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons (UN 2001 [1949]) like white-phosphorus bombs (HRW, 2023). Moreover, Israel is denying shelter to Palestinian refugees inviting a mass outflow from Gaza (Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber, 2023), a decision possibly bordering forced deportation (Tooze & Abadi, 2023).

In contrast, there is no estimate as to how much military material the Russian forces have thrown at Ukraine’s defences. However, Russia is the country welcoming most refugees from Ukraine: over 1.2 million (UNHCR, 2023). And, according to several analysts, Russia has shown restraint in harming Ukrainian civilians (cf. Troianovski & Barnes, 2022; Max Boot, 2023; and figure 3 below).

Figure 3 Comparison of casualties and injuries registered during the Russo-Ukrainian and Israel-Hamas conflicts according to the UNOCHA (2023a, p. 1, 2023b, p. 19).

Far from being motivated by humanitarian concerns, this tactic is self-interested. Probably, Russia is not levelling down on Ukraine because it hopes to occupy (part of) it. Or, perhaps, install a puppet regime in the aftermath of the war. This ends up saving some civilian lives and keeps key infrastructure standing whereas Israel has no intent of preserving: ‘Gaza will never go back to what it was’ (Fabian & Magid, 2023).

Conclusion: Only Euro-pragmatism can grant EU foreign policy’s effectiveness

In conclusion, the EU is standing at a crossroads at a time of extreme fluidity in the international system. Whatever direction it takes, the decision will ‘define the EU’s credibility and global role’ (Borrell, 2023b). Currently, it is difficult to qualify the EU’s position on the Israel-Hamas conflict. At best, it is the intrinsically contradictory result of a last-minute mediation between ideologically opposed sides. In the context of a divergence between policy and popular preferences on the Russo-Ukrainian war, that inconsistency could be fatal for the credibility of the EU’s foreign policy.

Essentially, the entire rhetorical apparatus built (cf. the wording in Borrell 2023a; 2023b with that in Biden’s speech reported by AP, 2023; as well as Goldberg 2023; and Sedlacek, 2023) around Hamas’ attack on Israel relies on the equivalence between Ukraine and Israel. However, Ukraine is fighting a war that majorities in several EU countries would end immediately if they could. Israel is not incredibly popular with the European public either. Thus, linking the two issues risks creating a politically unsustainable EU foreign policy lacking domestic support.

Furthermore, the EU’s proclaimed valued-based approach to foreign policy requires an end to such equivalences. A truly ethical and pragmatic approach shows that the two conflicts are too different for a meaningful comparison. Thus, linking the two issues does no service to the EU’s effectiveness and credibility in the international arena. If anything, it reproduces a self-interested brand of US policy that does not benefit Europeans in any way.

Faced with such dilemmas, EU foreign policy should be guided by a blend of realpolitik and humanitarian concerns, a marriage of political and ethical pragmatism. And only the formulation of a truly autonomous, value-based foreign policy rooted in domestic consensus can safeguard the EU’s normative power from progressive depletion. The ball is in the EU’s court and the world is watching.



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