European Affairs

For most people not directly involved, the issue seems to be something of a sleeper. But for the Arab-Israeli conflict’s actors, it is fraught with debate about the possible consequences of such a move and with questions about how the U.S. and the main EU countries are going to handle the issue.

The Palestinian message: Israel, under Likud Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, has not the slightest intention of negotiating any kind of peace which will meet Palestinian aspirations for an independent homeland based on the pre-1967 borders (ie an Israeli pullback from parts of the West Bank and non-intervention in Gaza) with East Jerusalem as its capital.  Witness, they say, the demonstration of Israel’s hard line delivered by the prime minister this summer in Washington in bluntly dismissing President Barack Obama’s suggestion of a new round of peace negotiations based on the 1967 borders, with land swaps between Palestinians and Israelis to provide for a secure border and mutual viability.

It is time, therefore, argues the Palestinian Authority (presently headquartered in the West Bank town of Ramallah), to seek overdue UN recognition, with all the state rights accorded any other fully-fledged member of the UN General Assembly. This would enable a Palestine government to conclude state treaties and even bid for a rotating non-permanent and seat on the Security Council, and it would include passports -- something ardently wished by those Palestinians still living outside of the country as refugees.

The Israeli argument is that such an outcome without negotiated safeguards would be disastrous, a renunciation of existing Palestine Liberation Organisation agreements with Israel and a flagrant attempt to “de-legitimize” the Jewish State. (“De-legitimization” has become the current buzzword among Middle East mavens.)

Technically, there is a roadblock in the Palestinian search for statehood via the UN. Full UN membership can only be accorded by the General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council, and the U.S. has bluntly told the Palestinians that Washington will veto any such recommendation. As explained to Palestinian representatives by the Obama administration, the U.S. fully supports their aspirations for statehood, but firmly opposes any declaration of Palestinian independence, at this juncture, on the grounds that it would seriously prejudice the outlook for an agreed peace resolving the “final status” issues including mutual recognition, security, borders, refugees’ return and the status of Jerusalem.

So the Palestinian Authority is now looking to the lesser status of UN recognition of partial Palestinian statehood by means of a General Assembly vote in September. Admission of Palestine would require a “yes” from two-thirds of all member states present and voting.

Most of the developing countries have already assured the Palestinians of their votes, and a two-thirds majority would be a powerful expression of international opinion. The U.S. would presumably veto any application for full formal recognition in the Security Council. But it might be more difficult for Washington use its veto if major European powers also voted in favor and virtually isolated the Americans and the Israelis. Hence the flurry of Palestinian and Israeli activity in European capitals to influence the position of the EU in September.

It testifies loudly to the importance of the issue that there was so little publicity this month about the apparently stalled outcome of the latest (and repeatedly postponed) meeting of the mediating Quartet: the UN, EU, Russia and the U.S.  For months, Palestinians had hoped that the Quartet would come up with a formula satisfying American and Israeli objections and opening the way to their Security Council bid. Conversely, Israel wanted the Quartet to find a basis for launching new peace talks, which could blunt momentum for the proposed September vote in the General Assembly.

The Quartet failed to find any public way forward. Afterwards Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov simply quipped that the wine at dinner was very good. Speaking at an Eurpean Institute-sponsored event in July, he also suggested inviting the head of the Arab League to join the Quartet’s meetings. The move, he said, could get more Arab input and support for the peace-making process – at the risk, according to U.S. experts, of diluting Quartet’s hopes of achieving an already-elusive consensus.

This outcome has spurred efforts to drum up support in Europe (and also in China, Australia and Canada) by the Palestinians. They are pursuing two routes to a General Assembly vote. One would invoke General Assembly resolution 181 of 1947, which not only mandated Israel's membership in the UN but also mandated the establishment of a Palestinian state (a resolution at that time rejected by the Arab world).  The other – a topic of legal argument since its adoption in 1950 – is the “Uniting for Peace” route. This resolution (number 377 in the UN canon) was a maneuver used by the U.S. during the Korean War to bypass Security Council vetoes by the Soviets, and later used to back calls for sanctions against apartheid South Africa. While resolutions under 377 are not binding like those of the Security Council, they cannot be negated by the Security Council.

With America now seen in Europe as obsessed with its economic problems and beginning, in advance of an election year, to step back from active involvement in a no-win Israeli-Arab impasse, Britain has been urging its European partners, in order to maximise pressure on both Israelis and Palestinians, not to spell out just how they might vote on a General Assembly resolution – hopefully, allowing a breathing space to urge the two sides back to negotiations.

This has led to some verbal gymnastics as national leaders seek to demonstrate their support for both sides without coming down firmly on the side of either.  Thus, Germany's Chancellor Angela Merkel has said that it would be “unhelpful” to recognise a Palestinian state while in the next breath declaring: “We want a two-state solution. We want to recognise a Palestinian state. Let us ensure negotiations begin. It is urgent.”

In France, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said, in advance of a meeting between President Nicolas Sarkozy and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, that the Palestinians were “more than ever ready to establish a state and run it in a credible and peaceful way.” The French prime minister said that “2011 must be the year of the establishment of a Palestinian state” while his foreign minister would go no further than saying that the possibility of recognition “should be kept in mind.” Meanwhile Sarkozy maintained his unpredictable style with a comment to a Paris newspaper that “if the peace process is still dead in September, France will face up to its responsibilities on the central question of recognition of a Palestinian state.”

In Britain, Foreign Secretary William Hague Stung responded to pro-Palestinian parliamentarians – who chided him for failing to commit to the cause of a state of Palestine – by pointing out that the UK had supported the Palestinian opposition to Israeli settlements and cast its UN vote the opposite way to the U.S -- “ unusual for us,” he noted wryly.  Britain, he said, like some other European nations, had upgraded the Palestinian delegation in London to the status of a mission with its head recognised as ambassador. (He also mentioned that Palestinian diplomats would get additional parking spaces!)

In explaining London’s wait-and-see public stance, Hague told Parliament that he wanted to see how the Fatah-Hamas conciliation agreement works out and to be reassured that a reformed Palestinian authority “will uphold non-violence, is committed to a negotiated two-state solution and [will] uphold the previous agreements of the Palestine Liberation Organisation. These are the factors by which we will judge the Palestinian approach.”

This is about as far as any major European leader is prepared to go at this time. Like other European governments, London is fervently hoping for a new round of peace talks at the earliest possible moment to ease this source of pressure in the turbulent Middle East. But there is more than a whiff of helplessness in the mid-summer air, coupled with anxious eagerness to see Washington find a way to re-engage with what is left of the peace process.

Away from the headlines, much is simmering at the moment. It could come to a boil in September in New York.

Geoffrey D. Paul is a former editor of the Jewish Chronicle in Britain.