Mahmoud Abbas in Stockholm

Published in i24News (French and Arabic versions also available):

There's an old Jewish joke which is particularly appropriate to describe Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas' visit to Stockholm today (Tuesday, February 10th). It tells of two people in conflict with one another who go to a rabbi for resolution. The first visits the rabbi and makes his case. The rabbi is impressed and says "you're absolutely right". Later on, the second person presents his case too and receives a similar response. When the rabbi's wife, who overheard the conversations with both men, asks how they can both be right, he simply answers: "you're right too".

When it comes to Mahmoud Abbas' Stockholm visit, there are three sides to the story, The Swedes, the Palestinians and the absent, but still dominant, Israelis. Just like in the joke, they're all right, but being right doesn’t necessarily lead anywhere.

On the surface the Swedes make a good point. A few months ago they recognized Palestinian as a state. The theory was that by doing this they're making the parties, Israel and the Palestinians, less unequal which will eventually help lead them back to the negotiating table. Today Swedish PM, Stefan Löfven,  at a joint press conference with President Abbas spoke of the importance of striving towards a two-state solution but he also spoke about the Palestinians' responsibilities. The Swedes, it seems, are trying to use their influence and are donating generously to help Abbas fight corruption, promote human rights and gender equality and generally strive towards democracy and peace. Sceptics may claim these policies won't work, but at least the Swedes are trying.

But there's a less public side to Sweden's policies. Stefan Löfven's government is a week one. It was almost sent back to the polls after its budget was voted down a couple of months ago and it was saved because it struck the so called "December agreement" with the opposition. Though this deal limits the influence of the far right wing populist "Sweden Democrats" party, it also seriously limits the government's ability to implement its policies.

But what is true about domestic policies may not be quite so true when it comes to foreign ones. Löfven's Palestine policy holds many political advantages for him. First, it's a compensation for his own party’s left wing and his coalition Green Party partners, for the right wing orientated domestic policies he's adopting. These come at no serious cost since the opponents to his Middle-Eastern policies know that the deadlock in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is so serious that there's no way a Swedish pro-active diplomatic effort can make a difference. Sure, right wing opposition politicians may make the occasional statement against the recognition of Palestine but they're saving their ammunition for where it really matters.

But there's an even bigger picture when it comes to Swedish foreign policy. This country of just 10 million is lately raising its international profile. A recent study by the European Council on Foreign Relations shows that it's second only to Germany in pushing through its foreign policy ideas in the EU (it shares second place with the UK). Sweden also seeks to win a seat on the UN's Security Council in the 2016 elections. It's been twenty years since the last time it had one, and an active policy and global headlines on one of the world's most publicized conflicts doesn’t hurt these Swedish ambitions. All this doesn’t mean that Sweden is using the Palestinians in a cynical or opportunist way. The ruling Social-Democratic party has always been serious about promoting peace, freedom and human rights worldwide. Still, it seems the Palestinian issue is also a convenient and not a very risky way to bring this relatively small country to the front of the world's stage.

But what do the Palestinians themselves have to gain from a presidential visit to the far north? It's now clear that Palestinian policy makers have decided that peace negotiations with what they see as an unwilling Israeli partner under a biased American leadership are a waste of time. After the failure of the Kerry talks they're putting their faith in the UN, the ICC and unilateral statements of recognition from parliaments and governments across Europe. These strategies are meant to raise the price paid by Israel for continuing the occupation of the West Bank in terms of international legitimacy. The Palestinians assume that the Israelis won't make any concessions without international pressure in forms of boycotts, upholding of trade agreements, diplomatic sanctions and legal processes against it.

Like the Swedes, the Palestinians are right too. As far as they're concerned, they're putting an end to years of futile peace talks which gave them close to nothing and what's worse, while they were negotiating Israel continued building settlements and enjoyed the fruits of Palestinian security co-operation and non-violent methods of resistance. Abbas and his people are tired of peace initiatives thrown their way and are entitled to turn to the world for support. But just like the Swedes, Abbas has narrow political interests too.

Abbas desperately needs a win. Recent polls show he's losing support at home. The unity government formed by his own movement, Fatah, and rivals Hamas in 2014 didn’t bring unity at all. The two movements are still very much in conflict and Abbas has no control over the Gaza strip. He's also receiving international pressure for failing to fight corruption and setting a date for elections. The negotiations with Israel gave him no achievements whatsoever and they lost him domestic support. So with no chance of winning in Gaza city, Jerusalem or Ramallah, he turns to The Hague, New York and Stockholm for photo opportunities with world leaders. And with Israel withholding his tax revenues, he returns from abroad with promises of state building contributions and humanitarian aid.

The Israelis, the third party in this political drama, are naturally suspicious of this Swedish generosity towards the Palestinians. They recently caused Swedish FM, Margot Wallström, to cancel a visit to Israel, this only a few months after recalling and returning their ambassador to Stockholm. Israel claims recent Palestinian policies are proof that they're not really interested in a two-state solution and the Swedes shouldn’t be encouraging this. "If he's serious about peace", wrote Israel's ambassador to Sweden, Isaac Bachman, in a local daily, SvD, "Abbas should travel to Jerusalem, not to Stockholm". He also blamed the Palestinian president for making unreasonable starting conditions to negotiations and encouraging violence and terrorism.

Yes, the Israeli government is right too. It's not surprising that it demands a unified negotiating partner who's committed to peace and recognizes Israel's right to exist as a Jewish state. But it's obvious that Israel's domestic politics are a part in this debate too. No political elements in Israel are really concerned with the Palestinians at the moment. There will be a general election in March and, sadly, promoting peace doesn't win votes in Israel these days. Quite the opposite. Many analysts claim Israeli PM Netanyahu is devoted to "containing" the conflict, not solving it, and none of his opponents seem likely to amaze the world with a bold and creative peace plan which will enter history books and not the never ending list of failed peace initiatives.

But none of this is really important. A meeting between an almost desperate 80 year old Palestinian leader with over-enthusiastic Swedish policy makers while a reluctant Israeli government is standing on the sidelines will change nothing on the ground. If the two-state solution is indeed the only game in town, it will take much more than this, both in terms of local Palestinian and Israeli willingness to compromise and in terms of international involvement, funding and assurances. Until then, as in the old joke, all sides will have to make do with just being right.


David Stavrou דיויד סטברו

עיתונאי ישראלי המתגורר בשוודיה Stockholm based Israeli journalist

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