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Analysis

Jerusalem optimistic over Europe’s new foreign policy chief

Italy’s Mogherini wants pressure for a Palestinian state, seems open-minded on Iran, but is seen in Israel as ‘more balanced’ than Catherine Ashton

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Italy Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini smiles as she meets the media during an informal meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Ministers, in Milan, Italy, Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. (Photo credit: AP/Luca Bruno)
Italy Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini smiles as she meets the media during an informal meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Ministers, in Milan, Italy, Friday, Aug. 29, 2014. (Photo credit: AP/Luca Bruno)

The European Union’s new foreign policy chief urges the rapid creation of a Palestinian state. She sees the EU’s role as exerting “political pressure” on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And she believes that it is “right to engage Iran,” a state that may just be “part of the solution” to the conflicts in the Middle East.

Yet officials in Jerusalem are hopeful that Federica Mogherini will be better for Israel than her predecessor.

On Saturday, Mogherini will succeed Catherine Ashton as the union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. Less than a week later, she is scheduled to arrive in Israel and the Palestinian territories for her first official visit in her new capacity.

“I will surely bring with me to Brussels a very strong engagement for the Middle East,” she said Tuesday at a conference on Syria in Berlin.

Earlier this month, Mogherini — still in her role as Italian foreign minister — hosted her Israeli counterpart Avigdor Liberman in Rome. “Restarting the peace process is essential to promptly bringing about the birth of a Palestinian State, along with security guarantees for Israel,” she said during the meeting.

Before joining the EU, Mogherini served in Italy’s center-left government led by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, who is known to be generally friendly toward Israel and tough on Iran’s nuclear program.

So far, relatively little is known about Mogherini’s positions on the Middle East, but officials in Jerusalem are optimistic.

FM Avigdor Liberman and his Italian counterpart Federica Mogherini in Rome, October 15, 2014 (photo credit:  Ariel Nacamulli)
FM Avigdor Liberman and his Italian counterpart Federica Mogherini in Rome, October 15, 2014 (photo credit: Ariel Nacamulli)

“She’s open and seems ready to listen to our positions,” a senior Israeli official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “We’re really hoping that she will have an open mind and try to represent a more balanced approached within the EU.”

The Renzi government has been relatively fair to Israel, and there is reason to hope that she will continue in this line also in her new role in Brussels, the official added. “The fact that her first visit is to our region tells us a lot.”

On the other hand, it should be noted that the EU’s foreign policy chief by no means has the final word on the union’s foreign policy, which is determined by the foreign ministers of the 28 member states. Nevertheless, Mogherini will be the EU’s face to the Middle East, and she does have a certain degree of influence over the way certain policies are implemented.

The EU’s relationship with Jerusalem has been thorny in recent months, and the Netanyahu government’s announcements of construction projects beyond the pre-1967 lines continues to anger the union. Convinced that such plans are detrimental to prospects for peace, the union is ready to reassess its ties with Israel if it continues to build over the Green Line, according to various officials.

“We stress that the future development of relations between the EU and Israel will depend on the latter’s engagement towards a lasting peace based on a two-state solution,” a recent statement from Ashton’s spokesperson read. This can be understood as as a veiled threat of coming sanctions.

However, the EU is not only brandishing the stick; it is also offering carrots. Were Israelis and Palestinians to make peace, the EU has promised to grant both parties a “Special Privileged Partnership” — a significant upgrade in ties that would include financial, political and security assistance.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini at the Knesset, Jerusalem, on July 16, 2014. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Italian Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini at the Knesset, Jerusalem, on July 16, 2014. Photo by Kobi Gideon/GPO/Flash90

On October 6, shortly after her nomination, Mogherini attended a hearing of the European Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee during which she shed some light on her positions.

“In the Middle East in particular, the EU has been an effective payer and needs to become an effective player,” the 41-year-old Rome native said.

For the first time ever, the EU has been asked by all sides to be more involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, she said, “so I see that for once we might have a crucial role in facilitating.”

The peace process has been going on for so long that “if we get the political will to find a solution to the conflict, the technical solution is there,” Mogherini said. “That is why I believe that our role can be that of exerting political pressure. We are big payers so we might have some leverage in terms of incentives and disincentives.”

‘We are big payers so we might have some leverage in terms of incentives and disincentives’

The EU should use a carrot-and-stick approach to push Israeli and Palestinian leaders toward reconciliation, she suggested. The first step should be seeing to it that the Palestinian Authority regains control over Gaza, and the EU has many “competences” it could provide the PA in order to ascertain that investment in the strip’s reconstruction does not get used for military purposes.

“We have to take into consideration the Israeli concerns about the fact that the reconstruction has to be a reconstruction and not rearming,” she said.

Mogherini did not mention West Bank settlements during the hearing.

Mogherini will not immediately inherit the Iran file from Ashton, who has been heading the group of six world powers — the so-called P5+1 — that are currently negotiating with Tehran regarding its rogue nuclear program.

In April, Mogherini made headlines when she suggested that Iran could play a positive role in the Syrian civil war, but at the same time warned that “in no possible way” should the regime be allowed to acquire military nuclear weapons capabilities.

During her October hearing in Brussels, she clarified that Iran could either play a constructive or a destructive role in the various conflicts in the region. “That is why I think it is right to engage Iran and try to see if it can, instead of being a spoiler in some conflicts around the area, be part of the solution.”

The West’s negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program should be divorced from a discussion about the country’s human rights record, Mogherini said. “The two things have to stay completely separate. Human rights are so important — too important to get inside any other kind of negotiation.” The P5+1 discusses the nuclear file regardless of Iran’s regional role, and the same should apply vis-à-vis human rights, she argued. “I would always raise the issue of human rights with the Iranian authorities.”

After several years and many heated arguments with Catherine Ashton, Israel is about to find out whether the optimism regarding her successor was justified when Mogherini arrives for a two-day visit in Jerusalem and Ramallah next Friday. It is not implausible that Israel will discover that as representative of the EU she will have to speak in a different tone than she did as Italy’s foreign minister.

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