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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 the Gaza Strip. 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,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said in a speech at the summit, although 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, 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’ 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.

(Published 21 October 2023, 21:49 IST)

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