DEBATE: Can Mahmoud Abbas Achieve Anything in Europe?

By March 22, 2018

BESA Center Online Debate No. 8, March 22, 2018

Q:     Following the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by US President Donald Trump, President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas is counting on the EU to support his cause. In his January 2018 meeting with EU High Representative Federica Mogherini, he was assured “of the firm commitment of the EU to the two-state solution, with Jerusalem as shared capital of the two states – the State of Israel and the State of Palestine”. However, it remains questionable whether the EU has the necessary gravitas to play a catalytic political role in the peace process. BESA joins the debate by posing the question: Can Mahmoud Abbas achieve anything in Europe?

Respondents: Jonathan Schanzer, Alon Ben-Meir, Roland Freudenstein, Azriel Bermant, and Tsilla Hershco

 Jonathan Schanzer, Senior Vice President, Foundation for Defense of Democracies, Washington DC

Mahmoud Abbas has already gained quite a lot from the Europeans. He has the sympathies of the EU and the support of its Middle East negotiators. This was evident during the Obama years, as European leaders lined up behind the American president as he engaged in a campaign to isolate Israel for its settlement policy in the West Bank. It was also evident throughout Abbas’s stop-and-go “Palestine 194” campaign, during which the aging Palestinian leader sought and gained unofficial recognition of statehood at the General Assembly and a host of other UN agencies.

However, there is a limit to how much leverage Abbas can gain from Europe. This was as true during the Obama years as it is with the new administration. Abbas is learning that now as he courts the Europeans for support amidst an increasingly bitter spat with the White House over Palestinian Authority funding and transparency. The White House has the Palestinians on their heels, and the Europeans simply don’t wield enough power to change that dynamic. The more Abbas looks to the Europeans for help, the more power he is likely to lose. In the end, Washington always trumps Brussels.

Alon Ben-Meir, Professor and Senior Fellow at New York University’s Center for Global Affairs and Senior Fellow at the World Policy Institute, New York

The relationship between the EU and the PA has by and large been very positive, especially because the EU has been and continues to be the largest financial contributor to the PA. Moreover, the EU has always supported the two-state solution and has been openly critical of the occupation and the Israeli settlements, which it considers a major obstacle to peace.

Due to Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Abbas wrongly concluded that the US can no longer be a neutral interlocutor, which flies in the face of the reality that the US is the only country that can exact any meaningful concession from Israel to achieve peace.

Moreover, whereas the EU is sympathetic to the Palestinian stance, it can do very little to change the dynamic of the peace process on its own. Hence, it is unrealistic for the PA to hope that the EU can revive the peace negotiations, particularly because the EU has limited sway over Israel. Abbas’s requests for the European community to recognize the Palestinian state may sway some nations to do so, but that would only harden the Israeli position.

Hence, Abbas’s decision to sidestep the US will simply go nowhere. He will have to come to the table sooner or later knowing that America’s role in the peace process has been, and will continue to be, indispensable.

Roland Freudenstein, Policy Director, Wilfried Martens Centre for European Studies, Brussels

Certainly, President Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel has led many in Europe to side more openly with the Palestinian Authority (PA), if only to spite Trump. In that respect, it made sense for PA leader Mahmoud Abbas to visit Europe in a renewed push to get more EU member states, and maybe the EU as a whole, to recognize Palestine as a sovereign state. Alas, there are still too many in Europe who see the futility of such a recognition in the absence of a peace agreement. Such an agreement would have to include not only two sovereign states, but also comprehensive security guarantees for Israel – after several wars of annihilation waged against it from Palestinian territory as well as from neighboring Arab states.

But if there is no recognition by the whole EU, Abbas asked European leaders, could there be at least an association agreement between the EU and the PA? This again was answered negatively by most EU leaders (with the notable exception of France) precisely because Palestine is not a sovereign state, and the PA is barely in control of the West Bank and certainly not of Gaza under Hamas. So, for the moment, the only thing Abbas might have achieved is a push to increase EU financial assistance to the PA – with the well-known problems of massive corruption and incitement to terrorism which are endemic in the PA. Quite an achievement, Mr. Abbas!

Azriel Bermant, Historian and Lecturer in International Relations at Tel Aviv University and at the Rothberg International School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Author of Margaret Thatcher and the Middle East (2016, Cambridge University Press)

In the wake of President Trump’s announcement recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, it is understandable that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would head for Europe to shore up his position.  The Palestinians snubbed US VP Mike Pence during his recent trip to the Middle East, and have declared that the Americans will no longer have an exclusive role to play as a mediator. The Europeans will do what they can to save the two-state solution, and Abbas traveled to Europe well aware that he would receive the red carpet treatment. During his meeting with EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini in Brussels, Abbas pleaded for EU member states to recognize a Palestinian state. Slovenia may be about to do so.

If several EU member states take such a step, this would provide a short-term morale boost for the Palestinian leader. However, EU member states are divided on Israel/Palestine and Mogherini would be well aware that no progress is possible without constructive American leadership. This is in short supply at present. Europe will be unable to improve the prospects for Palestinian independence and drive negotiations forward when the minimal demands of Israelis and Palestinians are unbridgeable and the US president is busy sabotaging his own supposed deal of the century to end the conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians.

Tsilla Hershco, Research Associate, BESA Center, Bar-Ilan University

Over the years, Europe has gradually supported the upgrade of the status of the Palestinian Authority.  For instance, Europe supported Abbas’s unilateral request to grant the Palestinian Authority non-member observer state status at the UN General Assembly (November 2012).  Europe has systematically and one-sidedly condemned Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria as a major factor in undermining the peace process, while ignoring the Palestinians’ incitements and acts of terror as a major factor that led to a deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Recently Europe unequivocally supported Abbas’s denunciation of Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

It is reasonable to assume that Europe will continue to provide economic and political support to the Palestinians as this support remains one of the few areas of agreement among the member states, who are divided on numerous major issues such as the common budget, common defense policy, immigration, counter-terrorism, etc. Concurrently, there are still prospects that France’s President Emmanuel Macron will continue to oppose unilateral moves regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Macron’s opposition to unilateral steps is significant due to his growing influence within the EU. In addition, Eastern European countries that maintain close ties with Israel are likely to oppose extreme unilateral moves such as supporting Abbas’s demand for the UN recognition of a Palestinian state.

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Dr. George N. Tzogopoulos
Dr. George N. Tzogopoulos

Dr. George N. Tzogopoulos (Ph.D. Loughborough University) specializes in media and international relations as well as Chinese affairs. Email: [email protected]