Stewart M. Patrick

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Israel Loses European Support on Palestinian Statehood

by Stewart M. Patrick
November 29, 2012

France's Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius (R) greets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before a meeting and the signing of a convention for a  financial aid to Palestine on June 7, 2012 at the Quai d'Orsay Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris (Pierre Verdy/Courtesy Reuters). France's Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius (R) greets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before a meeting and the signing of a convention for a financial aid to Palestine on June 7, 2012 at the Quai d'Orsay Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Paris (Pierre Verdy/Courtesy Reuters).

Today’s vote within the UN General Assembly gave overwhelming support to the Palestinian quest for nonmember status—marking a significant diplomatic development in the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which should give pause to political leaders in Israel and the United States.

The General Assembly vote was never in doubt, given overwhelming support for Palestine within the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM) and Group of 77 that dominate the institution. According to the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), at least 130 UN member states already grant sovereign status to the Palestinians on a bilateral basis. But the Israeli government had held out hope that it could at least marshal significant support what it termed a “moral majority” of UN states: that is, not an absolute majority, but a majority of right-thinking advanced democracies persuaded by both the normative and practical logic of the Israeli position: namely, that the prerequisite for final status negotiations is the presence of a credible and unified Palestinian entity that (unlike Hamas) has definitively renounced terrorism and accepted  Israel’s right to exist. Thursday’s vote dashed that comfortable illusion. In the end, 138 countries voted for the resolution, 41 abstained, and only 9 voted against.

The most striking shift is that the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, was able to peel away support from states of an internally divided Europe, beginning with France earlier this week. Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’s announcement that Paris—to Washington’s consternation—would vote for the UN resolution opened the floodgates. Spain, Italy, Norway, Greece, Belgium, and Denmark, among others, since adopted the same stance, while the United Kingdom and Germany pledged to abstain, rather than vote against the motion.

Paris’s pivotal decision to support the Palestinian gambit reflected at least three motivations. Fabius’s public explanation was that France had long backed Palestinian statehood; its vote for the resolution was thus a model of Cartesian “coherence and clarity.” A second rationale, according to French officials speaking off the record, was to give a victory to Abbas, in the hopes of bolstering his political position vis-à-vis Hamas, which has seen its popularity surge in Gaza and the West Bank after its confrontation  with Israel. The third, unspoken desire—consistent with longstanding Gaullist tendencies in French foreign policy—was to demonstrate French and broader European independence from U.S. policy.

To be sure, Palestine’s enhanced status in the UN will do little to change facts on the ground in the Middle East. As Fabius was quick to point out in endorsing Palestine’s bid, upgrading the territories’ juridical status is one thing. Achieving empirical statehood is quite another: the emergence of a truly sovereign and viable Palestinian state will depend on bilateral final status negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Beyond handing a symbolic victory to embattled Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, Thursday’s vote underscores Israel’s growing international isolation under the hardline government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The question for the Israeli and U.S. governments is how to respond to this changing landscape. After initially fulminating about dire consequences if the Palestinians proceeded with the UN vote (including the possible abrogation of the Oslo Accords), the Israeli government has wisely toned down its rhetoric, recognizing that imposition of draconian sanctions, say, would be counterproductive. Israeli officials now declare that actual Palestinian behavior in the vote’s aftermath will determine their responses.

The Obama administration, likewise, has sought to downplay the significance of the General Assembly vote, despite some calls in Congress for cutting off the considerable aid that the United States sends annually to both the Palestinian Authority and the United Nations itself. The administration recognizes that cutting off assistance to the PA would merely embolden Abbas’s adversaries, while withholding U.S. assessments to the United Nations would simply alienate the broader UN membership.

Things will get much dicier for the White House if the Palestinian Authority seeks to build on its enhanced status by seeking to join an array of UN specialized agencies, as it did in securing membership in UNESCO last year. In theory, the PA already had the capacity before the vote to join up to sixteen UN agencies, from the World Intellectual Property Organization to the International Atomic Energy Agency. As I wrote last year, this gambit would pose a painful quandary for the administration, which is prohibited under a two-decade-old law from funding “any specialized agency” of the United Nations, which grants Palestine equal membership. This provision places the United States in the somewhat absurd position of giving the tiny Palestinian Authority the initiative in determining which critical international organizations the United States can support.

To escape this dilemma, the Obama administration should pursue a two-track strategy. As it did last year, it should discreetly warn the PA that any moves to join these organizations would jeopardize continued U.S. aid. In parallel, it should reinitiate quiet conversations with congressional leaders to seek a national security waiver for these provisions, so the United States is not placed in a position of cutting off its nose to spite its face.

Perhaps the biggest immediate risk, however, is that the Palestinians will use their new status to pursue membership in the International Criminal Court (ICC), to which neither the United States nor Israel is party. As an ICC member, Palestine would have legal standing to seek judicial rulings on claims (whether credible or specious) of war crimes or crimes against humanity committed by Israeli Defense Forces or Israeli officials. While any such accusations would need to pass muster with the chief prosecutor of the ICC, to say nothing of the ICC’s panel of eighteen judges, membership would offer the Palestinians another, legal instrument in their campaign against Israeli occupation, as well as another forum to shape international sentiment.

In the short term, the vote will surely complicate efforts to get the two parties back to the negotiating table. In the longer term, the shifting diplomatic landscape will place additional pressure on Israel to move toward final status negotiations, despite the continued presence of Hamas as a major force in Palestinian politics.

Post a Comment 7 Comments

  • Posted by Omar

    How pathetic?! This country cannot detach itself from israel, that is no good for its interests and that consistently forces it to compromise its principles. This country is on a downward spiral and will never gain complete international supremacy again with a weakened economy and emerging international challengers as long as it doesn’t cure this cancer. For one fourth of humanity which is the Muslim world its uncompromising support, despite all of Israels crimes, is hypocritical.

    Your article smacks of that hypocrisy. Why shouldn’t Palestinian children be free, have education, health care and enjoy the same standard of living as their Israeli counterparts. Caging them and bombing them seems perfectly fine to your kind.

    Selective morality is hypocrisy

    The first step to solving a problem is acknowledging you have one. Acknowledge it.

  • Posted by rashid

    Omar – From your comment we are to deduce that Palestinian children do not get educated, do not have health care, that they live in cages that are bombed. Next time you want to make a legitimate contribution to a discussion on a topic that interests you, try DrSeuss.com. But thanks for your effort.

  • Posted by SAS

    I have said it before and I say it now – Palestine will be freed not when US foreign policy is reformed ( as it stands it is too corrupt and morally bankrupt ) but when it is rendered irrelevant.

    The Arab Spring was a nail in the coffin of US hegemony in the Middle East, and the upgraded status of Palestine in the United Nations is another sign of how US foreign policy is being undermined. For millions of people across the global South, that irrelevence could not come too soon.

  • Posted by EthanP

    It should be obvious to all that Arab oil money (bribes) have bought off most of these governments. Good old anti-semitism accounts for the rest. The world has decided there is no room in it for a Jewish nation. Nor Jews either, truth be told.

    The world is burning and the UN is throwing gasoline on the fire.
    The world will ge doomed and damned by it’s own hate.

  • Posted by Keith

    Nothing lasts forever. Welcome to the real world Israel. The Arab Spring has reached your doorstep. Time to wake up and do the right thing while you still can.

    You’ve gotten all the mileage out of the holocaust you could. The world ain’t buying you story anymore. Time to act like the peacemakers that the world thought you were going to be, inspite of yourselves.

    The helpless people you decided to pick on are increasingly not helpless anymore. Do yourself and the world a favor retreat to the UN borders and live in peace with your neighbors…

  • Posted by Bob Rains

    Omar, yes Israel has a problem: Hamas is free to fire rockets at Israeli residential areas with no consequences. However, when Israel retaliates, it is criticized. Hamas is a terrorist organization that doesn’t recognize Israel’s right to exist. Hamas will eternally seek to destroy Israel.

    Yes, Israel has a problem. They need friends who believe that a nation has a right to defend itself.

    I believe that, when Hamas fires rockets into Israel, Israel has a right to defend itself. Period.

  • Posted by Chris

    I really think, that Israel for it’s part brought the ‘UN vote’ on it’s self by ignoring the different means in which they had at ther diposal to deal with the issues of Hamas. They could have simply treated as a police action ,Entered Palestine, and not left until they had completly destroyed the Hamas infrastuture. They should have done it 2 decades ago, It is amazing to me how they led it drag out this long and cause this much chaos and destruction from both parties. We can see very clearly why Abbas got this victory, no one is a fool., if he didn’t we might as well have handed the middle east Hamas in a hand bag, but besides that was the profit margin really so great as to allow for these decades of atrocities? I certainly hope it was worth it. I am not happy about the present situation at all, i love Israel, and suppot them, I also, think it can be agreed that in the future of middle east policy, we have alot to learn. Maybe we should be edging more to the center in the future, and get off this brink of collapes of Middle east relations all together.

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