Abbas heads to Europe in bid to circumvent US in peace process
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AnalysisIn Brussels, PA chief will demand Europe recognize Palestine

Abbas heads to Europe in bid to circumvent US in peace process

The Palestinian leader will be seeking money and recognition, and will try to launch a new international framework for statehood

Dov Lieber

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech at the European Union Parliament in Brussels on June 23, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / JOHN THYS)
President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech at the European Union Parliament in Brussels on June 23, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / JOHN THYS)

On Monday, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will head to Brussels, where he hopes to set out on a new path to Palestinian statehood, without the United States.

After US President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December, the Palestinian leadership declared Washington could no longer fulfill the historic and central role in the peace process it has held for over two decades.

Last week the Central Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PCC) — the second-highest decision-making body for Palestinians — voted to make that process official.

The US “has lost its eligibility to function as a mediator and sponsor of the peace process” until it reverses the Jerusalem decision, the council said.

With the US out of the picture as far as he is concerned, Abbas faces two major challenges that he hopes Europe can help solve.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the PLO Central Committee in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 14, 2018. (Flash90)

The first, and perhaps simpler to fix, is financial. The US is by far the biggest donor of aid to the Palestinians. Now that the White House and Congress are threatening to end that aid, Abbas hopes the Europeans will fill the void.

There is reason to believe this approach might see some success. The US froze payments worth $100 million to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees earlier this month. Since then, Sweden and Belgium together donated $81.5 million. While money to UNRWA does not fill the PA’s coffers, it does keep a lot of Palestinians fed, educated and employed.

Abbas’s visit to Brussels also comes just one week before a committee of key groups who donate to the Palestinians will convene in the EU capital for an emergency session. The 15-member group, called the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee, includes the US and the EU.

While in Brussels on Monday, Abbas will meet with foreign ministers in a private luncheon and give public remarks alongside EU High Representative Federica Mogherini.

The second problem Abbas hopes the EU can solve is existential — at least from Ramallah’s point of view.

Abbas is seeking some kind of international framework through which the Palestinians can win an independent state. The main players in that arena now, from his point of view, are the EU, UN, Russia and China.

According to PLO executive committee member Wasel Abu Yusef, who spoke to The Times of Israel on Sunday, Abbas hopes to hold an international conference that will include those players, together with which he would form a framework paving the way to statehood.

Abbas is also going to demand that EU countries recognize the state of Palestine. This is something he has done before, though this time — with the EU and US more at odds on the Palestinians than ever before — he may meet with greater success.

There is much to be skeptical about when it comes to Abbas’s international framework plan.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (L) speaks with EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini during a press conference following their meeting at the European Commission in Brussels on March 27, 2017. (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)

The US was uniquely situated to sponsor peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians because it holds significant leverage over both parties. Other than the US, there does not appear to be any international player or mix of players that can pressure Israel into making tough concessions for peace. The same goes for the Palestinians.

The Paris peace conference is a salient example of the issue. France spent much of 2016 preparing a peace initiative that ended with 70 countries attending a summit in Paris at the start of 2017. The summit ended with all the countries in attendance signing a declaration reaffirming “that a negotiated solution with two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security, is the only way to achieve enduring peace.”

Israel did not attend the summit, insisting, as ever, that it will only talk to the Palestinians in a framework of direct bilateral negotiations, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed the whole affair as “rigged” and “pointless.”

After the declaration was signed, and the foreign ministers returned to their respective capitals, the conference was rarely heard of again, as if it had never taken place.

There is also one other major question: Are the Europeans on board with Abbas’s sharp pivot away from the United States?

Trump’s team is working on a peace plan, which it says is not yet fully formed. There are reports of what the plan contains, but it has not been formally proposed. It may be presumptuous of Abbas to think the EU is willing to give up on that plan before it is presented.

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