Abbas and Rivlin at the European Parliament : A Diplomatic Standoff?

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June 2016

Written by Salomé Ietter, EPMED’s Joint EU Research & Policy Co-ordinator.

On June 22 and 23, Reuven Rivlin, President of Israel since 2014, and Mahmoud Abbas, President of the State of Palestine since 2008, addressed the European Parliament (EP) in Brussels. In his introductory speech, the EP’s President, Martin Shultz, stated that the presence of both presidents in front of the EU signalled a strong will for peace. However, both speeches clearly revealed diverging focuses. A will for peace is not to be confused with a readiness for peace.

An “unbreakable bond” between the EU and Israel

Everyone, including the EP’s President, recognized the strong relations between Israel, Palestine and the European Union, although not exactly considering the triangle as equilateral as it should be. President Rivlin talked about an “unbreakable bond between Europe and Israel” that history built up, indirectly excluding Palestine as such from this common history. If it is not any more arguable that Israel and Europe indeed shaped each other in the 20th century, the links with Palestine as a state are not less mutually influential, a reality that Abbas recalled on Thursday.

Another point of contention was revealed as Shultz considered both entities (Israel and EU) as believing in a world of justice, whereas Abbas confronted the EP audience to the inertia of international law :

“Why is International Law not being applied?” – President Mahmoud Abbas

Two state solution : THE consensual point

“Our common interest, and moreover our common values, dictate our present and shape our future” – President Reuven Rivlin

In September 2015, the EU called for a two-state solution following the 1967 borders. On Thursday, Abbas pertinently noticed: “If you believe in a two-state solution, you have to recognise both of them”. This recognition, that the members of the European Parliament voted for in 2014 along with some EU member states, was easier to achieve on an international level than on a local one. According to Abbas, Palestinians “have been successful at international level, but we are not making any progress in terms of our relations with Israel”.

Religious violence as the first impediment to negotiations?

In addition to recognizing the State of Israel, the EP regularly condemns, and here once again, the ongoing building of Israeli settlements and the several acts of violence committed by both sides. Facing the expression of antisemitism in Europe, Rivlin underlined the need for religious tolerance. Through a certain focus on religious considerations, he also categorized the fight over Gaza as purely driven by a “violent jihadist organisation – Hamas”, depriving it from any political motives. It appears contrary to Abbas’s view, who considers that religious perspectives and manipulations are genuine dangers, and that we should consider first and foremost the political character of the conflict.

Abbas considers that the end of Israeli occupation and the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will bring an end to the growing attraction of extremism and terrorist acts in the entire region. Although it indeed has played a role in the destabilization of the region, the role of the conflict in igniting the entire Near-Est might be to reconsidered. According a recent report from the European Parliamentary Research Center, this conflict is ‘only’ the 6th reason invoked by young foreign fighters to join ISIS, after the lack of job opportunities, the belief in the superiority of a religion, or the rise of western secular values, for example.

The European Union : A Friend or a Tool ?

Playing evidently a dialogue of the deaf, both Presidents called on the EU to play a facilitator role in the peace process. While Abbas multiplied expressions of gratitude for recognition, Rivlin spoke more firmly, expressing the Israeli “growing sense of impatience”, especially toward the European criticisms of Israeli government.

“My European friends, we cannot agree on everything, but as friends, and as true allies (…) please respect the Israeli considerations, respect the sovereignty and the democratic process of its decision making” – President Reuven Rivlin

And it is precisely on this sovereignty and respect for timing that the main divergence can be found. While Rivlin asks for respect of the democratic process, Abbas argues that Israel will use this time to change things on the ground – meaning to enlarge the Israeli borders over the West Bank territory, “which will make things harder when we will finally apply the UNSCR 242”, deplored Abbas. While for Rivlin, the main problem comes from Hamas and its religious base, for Abbas, the main problem come from the settlements. And while the latter called “Israel to freeze its colonization, so we can start again the negotiations”, his Israeli counterparts remained silent on the issue, preferring to call on the people to make efforts – depriving, once again, the issue of its political nature.

“Peace is not only made between leaders, but between people” – President Reuven Rivlin

Whereas rumors invaded the Israeli newspapers that Abbas had declined to meet Rivlin while both of them in Brussels, the dialogue remains indirect, de facto positioning the EU as an intermediary. As an EU Member state, France is likely to take an important role in the next steps, and, as recalled by Mahmoud Abbas, to initiate the next international conference. On the 3rd of June, François Hollande announced that a peace conference will take place before the end of the year.

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