BRUSSELS — European Union foreign ministers argued Monday that the creation of a Palestinian state is the only credible way to achieve peace in the Middle East, expressing concern about Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s clear rejection of the idea.
“The declarations of Benjamin Netanyahu are worrying. There will be a need for a Palestinian state with security guarantees for all,” French Foreign Affairs Minister Stephane Sejourne told reporters in Brussels, where ministers met to discuss the war in Gaza.
Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz and Palestinian counterpart Riad Malki were also in Belgium’s capital for the talks. The issue of Gaza’s future has set Israel in opposition to the United States and its Arab allies who are trying to mediate an end to the fighting in the besieged Palestinian territory.
The Palestinian death toll from the war between Israel and Hamas has surpassed 25,000, according to the Health Ministry in Gaza. Israel said Sunday that another of the hostages taken during the Oct. 7 attack that triggered the war had died.
The EU is the world’s top provider of aid to the Palestinians but holds little leverage over Israel, despite being its biggest trading partner. The 27 member countries are also deeply divided in their approach. But as the death toll in Gaza mounts, so do calls for a halt to the fighting.
“Gaza is in a situation of extreme urgency. There is a risk of famine. There is a risk of epidemics. The violence must stop,” said Belgian Foreign Minister Hadja Lahbib, whose country holds the EU’s rotating presidency. Not all EU member countries agree on the cease-fire call.
Lahbib said a two-state solution was “the only way to establish peace in a durable way in the region.”
Israel appears far from achieving its goals of crushing Hamas and freeing the more than 100 remaining hostages. But Netanyahu rejects Palestinian statehood and seeks open-ended military control over Gaza.
The dispute over the territory’s future — with no end in sight to the war — poses a major obstacle to any plans for postwar governance or reconstruction.
The European ministers had wanted to hear about Israel’s plans for the future.
“Which are the other solutions they have in mind?” asked EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who chaired the meeting. “To make all the Palestinians leave? To kill off them?”
But Katz appeared reluctant to respond. He showed the ministers two videos: one about the creation of an artificial island off the coast of Gaza, the other a project for a rail linking the Middle East and India.
“I think the minister could have made better use of his time and focused on the deaths in Gaza,” Borrell said. Asked about persuading Katz of the merits of a two-state solution, Borrell conceded that “we weren’t able to get him to change his mind, but we weren’t expecting that.”
The Palestinian minister said a cease-fire is the most urgent need.
“We have to call collectively for a cease-fire. We cannot accept anything less,” Malki said.
He also called on the EU “to start contemplating sanctions against Netanyahu and others who are really destroying the chances for a two-state solution and for peace in the Middle East.”
Spain has pushed for a peace conference to discuss what might happen once the fighting is over. A future meeting in Brussels is in the works, but the timing remains unclear. The plan has the backing of some EU member countries, but others say it can only happen with Israel’s support.
“If Israel is not (at) the table, there is no use to have peace conferences,” Luxembourg Foreign Minister Xavier Bettel said. He does not believe Israel will be ready for talks as long as it believes that Hamas poses a danger.
The Israeli minister refused to respond when asked about the possibility of Palestinian statehood. Holding up pictures of Israeli hostages, he said he had come to seek support for Israel’s campaign to dismantle Hamas.
“We have to bring back our security. Our brave soldiers are fighting in very hard conditions,” he told reporters. The Israeli government’s aims, Katz said, are clear: “to bring back our hostages and restore security for the citizens of Israel.”
With regional tensions flaring, the ministers also gave their approval to an EU naval mission to help ensure maritime traffic security in the Red Sea, a major world trade route. Belgium has committed to send a frigate, and Germany could do the same. Italy also is willing to take part.
Borrell said that details remained to be ironed out, including when the mission might be launched.
For months, Yemen’s Houthi rebels have attacked ships in the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden that they say are linked to Israel or heading to Israeli ports. U.S. airstrikes have hit sites of the Iranian-backed Houthis seven times, according to U.S. officials. U.K. forces participated in some strikes.