Israeli officials warmly welcomed Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk’s appointment as president of the European Council on Sunday, but were more reserved at news that Italy’s Foreign Minister Federica Mogherini would replace Catherine Ashton as the EU’s foreign policy chief.
The more reserved reception toward Mogherini was because of lack of familiarity with the 41-year-old diplomat, who startled many when she was tapped – seemingly out of nowhere – as Italy’s foreign minister only six months ago.
“She is simply an unknown quantity, coming from the world of the left-leaning NGOs in Europe,” one official said of Mogherini, a member of Italy’s center left Democratic Party.
“It is not clear the degree to which she is ready to deal with very complicated files, such as the Iranian file,” the official said. Ashton was instrumental in leading the world power’s complex negotiations with Iran.
Another source in Jerusalem characterized Mogherini as a “tabula rasa,” and that it could be possible to develop strong relations with her. According to this source, from Israel’s perspective there may be a benefit in having a young, relatively inexperienced diplomat in this role, because it will give the various countries in the EU more of a say over foreign policy coming out of Brussels.
According to this source, the foreign policy bureaucracy, which Mogherini will now head is “the source” of Israel’s problems in Europe, with various key governments in Europe often having a more sympathetic attitude toward Israel than the foreign policy bureaucracy in Brussels.
The source said that from Jerusalem’s perspective, Mogherini’s appointment was preferable to two other names that were seen as top candidates: Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt and Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski, both considered strong, opinionated foreign ministers.
According to the source, Mogherini’s appointment presented Israel with a good opportunity to “turn over a new page” with the EU.
Mogherini visited Israel on July 15, during the early days of Operation Protective Edge and met then-president Shimon Peres, went to tour rocket-struck Ashdod with Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman and met Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.
During a press conference with Netanyahu she praised him for having accepted the Egyptian cease-fire proposal (which Hamas rejected at the time), and said she expected Hamas to accept it in the coming hours or days.
She said it was “extremely important” to stop the launching of rockets into Israel and also said she was “very much concerned” about the civilian casualties in Gaza.
“We really think it is dramatically urgent to stop this, and at the very same moment to restart the political process to find a sustainable and long term solution,” she said.
Netanyahu reminded her that while Italy was surrounded on three sides by water, Israel did not have that luxury.
“Imagine that your cities – Rome, Florence and Milan – were rocketed by a terrorist group next to you.
You wouldn’t accept it and would fight back, which is what Israel is doing.”
In Ashdod she said that “as a mother I understand very well the pressure and the tension there and at the same time the number of civilian victims in Gaza is extremely worrying. I think it’s in the interest of the Israeli and Palestinian people, especially in Gaza, to stop this.”
Mogherini has a degree in political science from Rome’s Sapienza University and wrote her thesis on politics and Islam.
In contrast to Mogherini, Tusk is a very well known quantity in Jerusalem, and has what one diplomatic source said is a good relationship with Netanyahu, whom he has met on a number of occasions.
“Tusk is a friend,” the source said. “During his leadership, Poland and Israel cooperated in a variety of different areas. His appointment could be good for Israeli-European relations.”