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November 7, 2014 3:22 pm

A Bold New Voice? Or a ‘Lightweight?’ Concerns, Skepticism Accompany EU Foreign Policy Chief Federica Mogherini to Israel

avatar by Ben Cohen

Federica Mogherini, the EU's new high representative for foreign policy, during a visit to the US earlier this year. Photo: Wikicommons.

Israel has tentatively welcomed the dawn of Federica Mogherini’s tenure as the European Union’s high representative for foreign affairs and security policy, but the jury is out on whether she will be a more sympathetic interlocutor than her predecessor, Catherine Ashton.

The 41 year-old Mogherini, who was Italy’s Foreign Minister in her previous job, is currently visiting Israel – her first official trip in her new role. This morning, she met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who baldly told her that “Jerusalem is Israel’s capital and it is not a settlement.”

Mogherini has been cautiously critical of the Swedish government’s recognition of a Palestinian state, saying that Stockholm’s decision did not represent the other nations in the EU. In an interview with French newspaper Le Monde, she stressed that the real issue was how to establish a Palestinian state in the first place. “I would be happy if, during my term, a Palestinian state were established,” she said.

Over the summer, while still Italian Foreign Minister, Mogherini won plaudits from European Jewish leaders for issuing a statement, together with her French and German counterparts, deploring the surge in anti-Semitic violence on the continent that marked protests against the war in Gaza. “Antisemitic rhetoric and hostility against Jews, attacks on people of Jewish belief and synagogues, have no place in our societies,” the three foreign ministers declared.

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But there is little evidence to suggest that Mogherini will deal differently with the Israeli existential anxieties over security that regularly led to diplomatic disagreements between Jerusalem and Catherine Ashton.

Certain of Mogherini’s past remarks about the Middle East indicate that she is a firm believer in the progressive worldview that underpins EU foreign policy. A confidential cable leaked by Wikileaks revealed that in 2006, when Mogherini was working on foreign affairs for the Italian Democratic Left political party, she told a private meeting that “much of Hamas’ electoral support came not from Islamic extremists but from common Palestinians disillusioned with the management of the Palestinian territories by Al Fatah.” Such assessments, which downplay the Islamist ideology that drives Hamas, do not sit well with Israel’s understanding of Palestinian political dynamics.

Her views on Iran also remain a source of concern, given her comment at a recent Aspen Institute seminar in Rome that “ways should be found to involve Iran and all regional actors” in resolving the brutal civil war in Syria; further extension of Iran’s regional grip is, of course, implacably opposed by the Israelis.

As a young political activist in the successor organization to the Italian Communist Party, Mogherini traveled to the West Bank town of Ramallah, where she met with the late PLO chief, Yasser Arafat. A photo of her standing next to Arafat and looking rather star-struck remains in circulation on the internet.

This undated image shows a younger Federica Mogherini with the late PLO leader Yasser Arafat. Photo: Screenshot.

Most intriguingly, as a student at Rome’s La Sapienza University, she wrote her graduate thesis on political Islam. Emanuele Ottolenghi, an Italian Jew who is presently a Senior Fellow with the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies (FDD) in Washington, DC, told The Algemeiner that the thesis was not available in the university’s library.

“It would be very interesting to read her thesis, because it’s probably the only extensive study of the Middle East and political Islam she’s ever written, and it would give insight into how her views developed in her formative years,” Ottolenghi said.

“It would be gracious on her part to release it now, in the interests of  transparency,” Ottolenghi urged.

Ottolenghi observed that mediation in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is, for the moment, the only way that Mogherini can make a mark as high representative, given that other key foreign policy areas, such as the fraught relations between the EU and Russia, lie more in the hands of the member states. Additionally, Ashton has retained the Iran portfolio up to the November 24 deadline for a final nuclear deal, and may continue to do so after that deadline passes and regardless of whether an agreement is secured.

So far, Ottolenghi isn’t too impressed with what he’s seen. “She comes out as a lightweight, not as a visionary stateswoman,” he said. “She doesn’t stray from the EU consensus on the need for diplomacy at all costs, and her foreign policy worldview comes from social democratic left.”

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