Middle East

Heated diplomacy behind Palestinian statehood bid

Mahmoud Abbas - May 2011
Image caption Palestinians are hoping to build momentum behind their call for statehood

For the next two months, a lot of diplomatic capital will be spent on dealing with a Palestinian bid for an international recognition of statehood that appears to be almost certain to fail.

The Palestinian Authority, which governs the Palestinian controlled parts of the West Bank, formally announced on Monday its intention to apply for full membership of the United Nations, arguing it can no longer wait for a paralysed peace process to bestow independence on the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories.

But for that it will need to win approval from the Security Council and a two-thirds majority - or 128 votes - in the 192-member General Assembly (GA). The latter it can probably exceed, the former looks impossible as the US is expected to veto any such request.

The Palestinian strategy is to lobby for support from the largest possible majority in order to dissuade Washington from this course. So far 112 nations have recognised Palestine as a state and the Palestinian UN envoy Riyad Mansour says the number is approaching 120.

The Palestinians can expect strong, possibly unanimous backing from Africa, Asia and Latin America, and certainly from Arab countries.

In the past, US allies such as Egypt would have warned the Palestinians not to antagonise the Americans, but the pro-democracy uprisings have swept away such restraint.

'Failed peace talks'

There is a general sense in the region and beyond that the intransigence of the Israeli government is to blame for failed peace talks, as well as disappointment with President Barack Obama for failing to move Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

This was reflected most harshly by the former Saudi intelligence chief and US ambassador, Turki al-Faisal. Writing in the Washington Post he warned of "disastrous consequences" for US-Saudi relations if Washington exercised its veto.

Alongside support from UN member states, the Palestinian Authority is promising mass demonstrations in the streets.

"Our strategy is to cross the two-thirds majority and to knock with force on the door of the Security Council to see if anyone stands against this," says Mr Mansour.

"If hundreds of thousands of Palestinians are in the streets for weeks before D-day in September… supported by millions of Arabs in Arab capitals… what would be the argument of President Barack Obama in trying to disregard this wish?"

Leaked cable

The Israelis are also mobilising their formidable lobbying machine.

A diplomatic cable leaked to the Israeli press orders ambassadors to approach senior politicians in the country of their service and galvanise the media and local Jewish community in their cause, reporting back to a "September Forum" in the foreign ministry.

Their argument is that the Palestinian drive for UN membership erodes the legitimacy of the state of Israel. By pursuing it, they say, the Palestinians are trying to achieve their aims unilaterally rather than through negotiations.

Israel knows the Palestinians would probably win a two-thirds majority at the GA, but believes the vote would have less authority if it didn't include major European states.

"Our goal is to create momentum against recognition of a Palestinian state in September by creating a significant bloc of EU states that voice their opposition as early as possible to unilateral Palestinian action," wrote the foreign ministry Director General Rafael Barak in the cable, quoted in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz.

Europeans divided

There will not be a unified European position. Countries such as Germany, Italy and the Netherlands are expected to vote against any motion, or abstain.

But others such as France and Britain have suggested if there is no meaningful peace process by September they might support the Palestinian bid.

Unlike the Americans, the Europeans see the UN as a legitimate venue for dealing with the Middle East peace process - Washington backs Israel's position that it is best handled in bilateral negotiations and has promised its ally to keep the matter out of the Security Council.

European states also believe the only way to solve the conflict is through negotiations. But like the Palestinians they do not think this can be an open-ended process, or conducted in a vacuum. So Britain and France in particular have focused their diplomatic efforts at pushing for a framework for talks.

Together with Germany they have proposed four parameters any negotiations will have to achieve: borders based on territory captured by Israel in 1967 with mutually agreed adjustments; security arrangements that both end any sign of occupation and prevent terrorism; a shared capital in Jerusalem; and a just solution to the refugee question.

Fear of violence

So far Mr Obama has met them halfway, declaring in a recent policy speech that a future Palestinian state must be based on the 1967 border while supporting Israel's need for security.

The Palestinians have accepted his terms as a way back to negotiations, the Israelis officially say they have no conditions for restarting talks but have rejected outright the idea of a return to 1967.

Aside from intense efforts to press both sides into talks, diplomats say the Europeans are exploring options for international endorsement of the parameters - perhaps by the Security Council.

They had hoped endorsing these parameters would be enough to convince Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to call off his drive for UN membership.

If the Palestinian attempt to gain recognition is vetoed, it is not clear for what action the Palestinians would call in the General Assembly. What is certain is that the GA cannot grant UN membership without Security Council endorsement.

Like the Americans the Europeans do not want it to get that far. They fear a veto of the Palestinian request would inflict immense political damage on the Americans in the region, and on European states - like the UK and France - allied with them.

They also fear violence. If the US vetoes the Palestinian membership bid without offering an alternative, many think the Palestinian Authority could lose control of any mass Palestinian protest movement. Some even talk of a third intifada merging with the protests of the Arab Spring.

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