EU Official: Wait-and-See Approach to Palestinian UN Bid

While the United States has expressed opposition to the Palestinian plans to go to the United Nations for recognition and a UN membership upgrade, Europe as a whole remains undecided on the matter. European Union foreign policy head Catharine Ashton said on Monday that the Palestinians have yet to officially table a UN resolution, so Europe has not made a final decision on the bid.

In comments released by Ashton’s office during her trip to Egypt, she said of the EU approach to a Palestinian UN bid, “There is no resolution on the table yet, so there is no position.”

Technically, not all European nations have been that ambiguous. Germany is on record as previously expressing its opposition to the Palestinian bid. And despite the wait-and-see approach to the UN bid, Ashton reiterated that the EU wants to see a negotiated solution between Israel and the Palestinians.

“What we’re very clear about from the European Union is that the way forward is negotiations. We want to see a just and fair settlement,” said Ashton. “We want to see the people of Palestine and the people of Israel living side by side, in peace and security. And I will do everything I can to try and help achieve that.”

Ashton’s comments presented a united European perspective on the UN matter. But with some nations already openly expressing opinions on the expected UN bid, that show of unity appears to be uncertain at best.

“I think the European Union is quite divided” on the Palestinian UN move, said Dr. Jonathan Rynhold, an expert on Israeli diplomacy at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University.

Speaking by phone with The Mideast Update, Dr. Rynhold said part of the division falls along the lines of the respective national governments. More conservative governments, such as Italy, tend to better support Israel, while more left-leaning governments tend to send more support to the Palestinians.

He said nations in Central and Eastern Europe that became democracies after the collapse of the Soviet Union and are more closely linked to the US “tend to be more sympathetic to Israel and more skeptical about this.” France and Spain were two nations he mentioned that “tend to be more supportive” of the Palestinians. The British are “sort of wavering and looking likely at the moment to abstain” on the matter, according to Dr. Rynhold.

Germany appears to be sticking to their opposition. While their statement did not mention how they would vote, the spokesperson for the German Embassy to the US, Karl-Matthias Klause, told The Mideast Update by email on Wednesday, “The German Government strongly supports all efforts to restart negotiations, but peace will only be achieved by negotiations and not unilateral measures. In this sense the German government is actively supporting the ongoing talks.”

Dr. Rynhold noted that traditionally Europe has been rhetorically united on the Palestinians, although in practical terms each state “pursues its own policies.” Because this time an official vote is expected to be required, the UN matter could be linked to other European policy issues with the potential for “some horse trading” that could facilitate their voting as a bloc, says Dr. Rynhold.

Ashton’s caution in expressing a European position on the matter is therefore still valid to a degree. Dr. Rynhold said that the content and force of the Palestinian resolution, and whether it is seen as a path to renewed talks or as a replacement for negotiations, could affect who will end up voting for it.

“The more the resolution seems to take the place of negotiations, to set terms; the more it is one-sided against Israel or in favor of the Palestinians, the less likely there is to be a consensus,” said Dr. Rynhold. “The more neutral it is, the softer it is, the less it seems to set up a basis for sanctions against Israel in the future, the more likely it is that there’ll be a consensus in Europe on the issue.”

One issue dividing Europe, and setting some nations opposite the US, is the matter of the baseline for borders. The US wants Israel to accept the 1967 lines with accepted swaps in exchange for security concessions and the Palestinians’ recognizing Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people.

Dr. Rynhold said Germany lines up more with the US on the issue, but France and Spain are content with the borders compromise coming from Israel without them receiving something in return for that specific concession. Another potential impact on a European vote would be a new peace proposal, but there are a variety of complications to that as well.

The impact of who votes on the measure is noteworthy, especially as it relates to the aftermath of the vote. The US’ commitment to vetoing a measure in the Security Council means the Palestinians will likely have to settle for a resolution from the UN General Assembly. That vote would be more symbolic and lack the legal weight of a Security Council resolution, and the Palestinians could only upgrade their UN status—not achieve full membership.

However, such a vote will set the stage for a possible Palestinian diplomatic and legal offensive against Israel, and who votes for the resolution will impact its effectiveness. As an example, Dr. Rynhold said that a General Assembly vote could set up a political environment more open to eventual boycott, divestment and sanctions efforts by the Palestinians against Israel in the future. Europe, as a massive trading partner with Israel, would then play a crucial role in such a scenario.

“If Europe were at least divided, or not backing the Palestinians on this, then the case, the political backing for those kind of moves would be much less significant… it means that any attempt to impose sanctions will have much less support and have much less purchase because Israel’s largest trading partner won’t be a part of it,” said Dr. Rynhold.

Looking ahead, he felt that “a big danger” is the potential for a Palestinian UN situation to be used to kick off new violence. “It could lead to massive demonstrations throughout Arab countries, and an opportunity for radicals in the Arab world and the Muslim world who oppose the peace process to mobilize their forces,” said Dr. Rynhold.

He noted that public demonstrations in the Arab world could be “turned towards the issue of Israel and the Palestinians,” comparing such an escalation to last weekend’s attack on the Israeli embassy in Egypt and the deterioration in ties with Turkey, both of which were at least partly separate from the Palestinian matter.

“Things could get out of control quite easily,” said Dr. Rynhold. “And I would say that it will require quite a lot of skill on Israel’s part and the United States’ part to prevent that from happening, and most of all it requires a maturity in Palestinian diplomacy that unfortunately seems to be lacking at the moment… I hope I’m wrong, I hope it turns out better.”

(By Joshua Spurlock,, September 15, 2011)