Austrian Diplomacy in Crossfire: Schallenberg's Journey Through the Middle East

PeopleDiplomats ♦ Published: March 4, 2024; 20:00 ♦ (Vindobona)

In the shadow of the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, which reached a new level of escalation following the Hamas terrorist attack on October 7, 2024, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg embarked on a significant diplomatic mission. His trip, which lasted three days, took him through Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, and finally Lebanon - all hotspots in a region marked by political tensions and humanitarian crises.

Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg and his Israeli counterpart Israel Katz met with relatives of Israeli hostages in Tel Aviv. / Picture: © BMEIA Bundesministerium für Europa, Integration und Äußeres / Gruber / Flickr Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

Schallenberg's journey began in Vienna, where he clearly defined his goals: firstly, he called for a humanitarian ceasefire to bring much-needed humanitarian aid to Gaza and to secure the release of over 130 hostages, including an Austrian-Israeli family man. Secondly, he pleads for a medium-term plan that places Gaza under civilian Palestinian administration and allows the population to live in security and dignity. Thirdly, he emphasizes the need for a long-term two-state solution and the normalization of relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors.

Solidarity and support

His first stop was Israel, where his talks with his counterpart Israel Katz were dominated by the recent terrorist attacks by Hamas and their devastating effects. There was a particular focus on the humanitarian emergency in Gaza and the demand for the release of all hostages, including an Austrian-Israeli family man.

In Tel Aviv, Schallenberg assured Israel of Austria's unreserved solidarity and emphasized the strategic partnership between the two states. At the same time, he emphasized the need to protect the civilian population and to comply with obligations under international humanitarian law. The emotional highlight of his visit was the meeting with relatives of the hostages kidnapped by Hamas.

Despite Israel's recognition of its right to self-defense, Schallenberg urged compliance with international humanitarian law and called for a credible plan to protect the civilian population, particularly given the announced Israeli offensive in Rafah. "We need a plan for the day after: There is no way around the two-state solution!" said Schallenberg. "The sooner all players understand this, the better!" The Foreign Minister also made it clear that Hamas must not play a role in the political future of the region.

At the same time, the Austrian government announced in Vienna that it would provide an additional 10 million euros for the suffering civilian population in Gaza to support the vital work of humanitarian organizations on the ground. This underlines Austria's determination to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis.

Jordan as an anchor of stability

The visit continued to the Jordanian capital Amman, where Schallenberg met with Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi. During his visit to Jordan, Austrian Foreign Minister Alexander Schallenberg emphasized Jordan's role as a stabilizing factor in the Middle East and called for a settlement of the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

Schallenberg emphasized the importance of protecting the civilian population on both sides and compliance with international law, including in the Gaza Strip. "The humanitarian situation in Gaza is a catastrophe. We must not look away, but must demand humanitarian pauses so that aid can be provided and hostages can be released," said Schallenberg. He reiterated the need for humanitarian ceasefires, especially against the backdrop of a possible Israeli ground offensive in Rafah. The two diplomats also agreed on the importance of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Schallenberg pointed out Jordan's special role due to its responsibility for Muslim and Christian sites in Jerusalem and emphasized the high number of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, which makes a sustainable solution to the conflict all the more urgent.

With Ramadan approaching, Schallenberg emphasized the importance of preventing further escalation so that people in the region can celebrate the time of fasting, prayer, and fellowship peacefully.

Hope in Ramallah

In the Palestinian territories, Schallenberg met with Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh. The main topics of discussion were the precarious humanitarian conditions in Gaza and Austria's commitment to supporting the suffering population.

Schallenberg expressed his deep concern about the worsening humanitarian crisis in Gaza and emphasized the need to provide comprehensive assistance to the civilian population. "The extent of human suffering in this region is unimaginable and requires our immediate action," said Schallenberg. Another important topic of discussion was the situation in Rafah, in the southern part of the Gaza Strip, and the need for humanitarian corridors to help people in need. The Foreign Minister promised to continue working for such corridors and to emphasize the importance of releasing over 130 hostages still held by Hamas.

Schallenberg also spoke out clearly against the expansion of settlements and acts of violence and emphasized the importance of international law for the peace process in the region. "Any loss of innocent human life, be it in Israel or the Palestinian territories, must come to an end," the Foreign Minister declared. In conclusion, Schallenberg reiterated Austria's support for a two-state solution, which is seen as the only path to lasting peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians. He also called on the Palestinian Authority to implement the necessary reforms to normalize relations with Israel.

Lebanon - last stop of the peace mission

Schallenberg concluded his trip in Lebanon, where he met with high-ranking government representatives and the commander of the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL. The talks aimed to prevent a further escalation of violence and to discuss ways to achieve lasting peace. At this critical moment, Schallenberg met with Abdallah Bou Habib, the Lebanese Foreign Minister, as well as Prime Minister Najib Mikati and other leading figures. The discussions focused primarily on the consequences of Hamas' latest terrorist attack on Israel, which has thrown the entire region into turmoil.

"We are facing a dicey situation that could quickly lead to a conflagration in the entire region. It is crucial to act now to prevent this," emphasized Schallenberg during his visit. The talks focused on how to prevent a further flare-up of violence and promote long-term peace. One particular concern is the possible opening of a second front by Hezbollah on the Lebanese-Israeli border. Schallenberg appealed to all parties involved to exercise the utmost restraint and to seek diplomatic solutions to prevent further escalation.

The Austrian Foreign Minister also drew attention to the important role of the UN peacekeeping force UNIFIL in Lebanon, which is making a significant contribution to calming the situation on the border. With 176 soldiers, Austria is the largest national contributor to UNIFIL and thus plays a key role in peacekeeping in the region. "UNIFIL and the Austrian contingent in particular are doing an outstanding job on the ground. It is of the utmost importance that all parties ensure the security of these peacekeepers," said Schallenberg. He emphasized the need to fully implement UN Security Council Resolution 1701, which, among other things, provides for the withdrawal of Hezbollah beyond the Litani River.

Austria's influence is limited

Austria's diplomatic engagement in the Middle East, such as Foreign Minister Schallenberg's trips, demonstrates the country's efforts to act as a reliable partner in international peace efforts and to promote dialog between the parties to the conflict. These efforts can help to dispel misunderstandings, find common solutions, and mobilize the international community to promote peace in the region.

However, it must be recognized that Austria's actual influence on the complex conflicts in the Middle East is limited and requires a coordinated effort by many international actors. Nevertheless, Austrian initiatives such as the deployment of peacekeepers play an important role in stabilizing the situation and underline the country's commitment to security and peace in the region.

Austrian MFA