Now is the time for EU leadership: Deflecting Palestinian unilateralism at the UN

Insisting that the Palestinians and Israelis come back to the negotiating table under the aegis of an Obama peace plan, Washington has indicated its break from reality and has accordingly abdicated leadership on this issue. This opens the door for EU leadership that could disarm the dangerous partisan atmosphere triggered by Palestinian unilateralism.

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'Have their cake and eat it' - stage is set for EU leadership

Commenting on the looming Palestinian unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) last April, German Chancellor, Angela Merkel said, "it is not certain that unilateral recognition will contribute to promoting peace."

Since then, her opposition to UDI has grown stauncher. Italian Foreign Minister, Franco Frattini, recently echoed her concerns: "Peace is made through negotiation, not through imposition."

By contrast, French President Nicolas Sarkozy stated in May that "If the peace process is still dead in September, France will face up to its responsibilities on the central question of the recognition of a Palestinian state." And Spain’s Foreign Minister, Trinidad Jimenez, opined that “There’s the feeling that now is the time to do something, to give the Palestinians the hope that a state could become reality.”

The unilateral Palestinian drive for recognition at the UN has unquestionably exposed deep fault lines among the 27 member states of the European Union.

Despite traditional support for a negotiated two-state solution to the conflict, several EU members are breaking rank and backing Palestinian unilateralism.  This only serves to reinforce the widespread notion that the EU's disagreements prevent it from issuing any meaningful foreign policies.

For Europe, this is a major headache. Given that the United States has already announced its willingness to veto their application at the UN Security Council, there is a real chance that deep divisions - both within Europe and between Europe and America - could needlessly damage transatlantic cooperation the Middle East.  The last time this occurred was the Iraq War in 2003, and those rifts have not fully healed.

With yet another crisis potentially brewing in the Middle East, the EU's need for a compromise has become as urgent as it is difficult. This weekend, European foreign ministers are set to meet in Poland - the current president of the European Union - in a last ditch effort to find a position that all 27 states can live with.

Germany and Italy continue to stand firmly against the measure that will likely arm the Palestinians with legal ammunition to pursue the Israelis in international courts. The Czech Republic and other Eastern European states are believed to embrace this position, even though many recognized a previous declaration of a Palestinian state in 1988 - when they were all Communist satellites of the Soviet Union.

These countries understand the dangers of this new initiative. By creating a crisis that could dramatically up the ante, the Palestinians may trigger an escalation on the ground, prompt the possible collapse of the Oslo Accords, and unleash a diplomatic storm that would wreak havoc throughout the region.

On the other side, Cyprus, France, Ireland, Luxembourg, Malta, Sweden, Spain and others stand squarely behind the Palestinian manoeuvre.  They believe that the declaration of independence, even if only ratified in a non-binding UN General Assembly resolution, will put the Palestinians on more equal footing with the Israelis.  They believe that this could force the Israelis to relinquish disputed territories and hasten an end-of-conflict agreement.

Others are still undecided. They fear that a new intifada (uprising) may erupt in support of this initiative. Moreover, a non-binding General Assembly could needlessly raise expectations that the Palestinian leadership cannot fulfil.  This could lead to an internal Palestinian crisis, as well.

Will the EU craft a clear position on this issue? The clock is now ticking.   

While convening in Poland, EU leaders need to break with the notion that the UDI is a binary proposition. Indeed, the Palestinians have marketed their initiative as one that states must either accept or reject.  But the reality is that the resolution at the UN could include language that engenders reconciliation, instead of ratcheting up tension.

While the nonbinding UN resolution in September may ultimately call for a state and satisfy the Palestinian desire for recognition, it could also stipulate that the Israelis must ultimately agree to the final status of its own borders, thus ensuring Israel's ability to determine its own security parameters. Such a clause could indemnify the Israelis from Palestinian legal action in international courts following the vote.

Israel begrudgingly indicated that it might be willing to live with language that recognizes a Palestinian state as long as it recognizes Israel as a Jewish one.  Moreover, Israel would undoubtedly welcome any resolution that calls for an end of the Palestinian demands for the "right of return" to Israel for the millions of descendants from the original Palestinians displaced in the 1948 and 1967 wars.

The advantage of this approach is that Europeans could have their cake and eat it too - support Palestinian statehood but with conditions aimed at assuaging Israeli concerns.  The result would be a compromise that unifies the EU, and potentially sets the tone for a less contentious General Assembly session in September.

Insisting that the Palestinians and Israelis come back to the negotiating table under the aegis of an Obama peace plan, Washington has indicated its break from reality and has accordingly abdicated leadership on this issue. This opens the door for EU leadership that could disarm the dangerous partisan atmosphere triggered by Palestinian unilateralism.

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, where Emanuele Ottolenghi is a senior fellow.

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