by Christine Colbert
The United States has long acted as the peace broker between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. But with negotiations at a standstill, Europe is emerging as a key player. In recent weeks Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas have sought to gain support of key European leaders. Neither of them has visited Washington since spring.
White House officials indicate that President Obama has been keeping a low profile since he unsuccessfully tried to break the long-standing stalemate by suggesting a return to pre-1967 boundaries as a model for negotiating the contours of a Palestinian state.
The PA’s anticipated push for recognition by the UN would almost certainly be supported by the more than 100 developing countries in the General Assembly. But among the UN’s 15-member Security Council, the US is expected to oppose the push. For this reason, Britain, France, and Germany would be influential swing votes.
Europe has not often been so pursued by Middle Eastern emissaries. Europe has taken a lead role in the NATO military campaign in Libya, and apparently finds its new Middle East power broker role to be gratifying. But this new role may lead to a European Union split, with some countries supporting the Palestinian push and some supporting Israel. Divisiveness is particularly undesirable in the light of the EU’s having been strained by the debt crisis in Greece. It appears that Germany and Italy would reject the Palestinian campaign, while France and Spain appear to be receptive. The British position has not been disclosed.
Apparently some Europeans see their role in determining the outcome of the PA push for UN recognition to be a means of pressuring Israel to return to negotiations. This process came to a halt last fall. A few months later, President Obama proposed reinstating the pre-1967 Arab-Israeli war borders, but adjusting these to allow for Jewish settlements in the West Bank as a basis for resuming negotiations toward a new Palestinian state.
Prime Minister Netanyahu initially rejected this formula, saying it would leave Israel indefensible. However, an Israeli official has indicated more recently that Mr. Netanyahu has moved closer to accepting the proposal — on the condition that the PA agrees to recognition of Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinians have long refused to do this.
In mid-July the US tried to build support for this “quid pro quo” among the Quartet on the Middle East, which also comprises representatives of the EU, the UN, and Russia. The Quartet’s endorsement would have put pressure on both Israel and the PA to resume negotiations, which would have had a dampening effect on the Palestinian push toward UN recognition.
European representatives have publicly supported Mr. Obama’s proposal for resuming negotiations; but several of them, including Russia, have balked at the requirement that the PA recognize Israel as a Jewish state. The Quartet has not taken an official position. Israel’s defense minister Ehud Barak has warned that Israel may face a “diplomatic tsunami” if the PA succeeds in advancing its proposal.
The executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, Ghaith al-Omari, has predicted that if the PA continues its push for UN recognition “it would be highly destabilizing.” The US has tried to dissuade the PA from the planned move by reminding Palestinians that if they continue to push for UN recognition rather than negotiating Congress may vote to stop providing aid to the PA. The US appears to be leaving the responsibility to former British prime minister Tony Blair, who serves as special envoy to the Quartet, to dissuade the PA from this strategy.
President Obama has signaled that he would veto a Palestinian statehood resolution, although wide speculation ensued that the US would not want to be alone in vetoing the resolution. Sources close to the administration indicate that it appears less concerned by this prospect than previously thought.
Thus far the PA insists it will continue on course with the push for recognition. The Palestinians may decide to tone down their effort by petitioning the General Assembly rather than the Security Council and requesting nonmember status in hopes of dodging a US veto. It is widely agreed that the Palestinians will not push for full recognition without the support of larger European countries like Britain and France.
The global community awaits a signal from European countries regarding the PA’s anticipated strategy.
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