September 2, 2011

Israel may finally lose the EU on Palestinian statehood

The Foreign Ministers of the European Union are meeting one more time to try and reach consensus on the Palestinian bid for United Nations recognition as an independent, sovereign state. This gives President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu one last chance to try working together before the United States is forced to cast its veto in the UN Security Council, probably in early October. 

If the UN General Assembly recognizes a sovereign state, that's at once a major breakthrough and headache for the Palestinians and certainly no picnic for the Israelis. It will effectively accord the Palestinians the same sovereign status as the State of Israel. Membership in the UN depends on a vote in the Security Council, however, where the United States is one of five permanent members (P-5) entitled to veto the whole exercise. But the GA resolution will carry massive moral power, open the floodgates for all sorts of substantive and symbolic advantages. The U.S. veto would withhold the ultimate prize, and for that Washington will be scorned. 

The biggest door the Palestinians hope to open with the "UDI" (unilateral declaration of independence) is Europe. Although sympathy for the Palestinians runs high in Europe, there are limitations: No formal Palestinian embassies, no major trade agreements, many of the business and development initiatives are subject to EU consensus and the Mideast Quartet comprised of the United Nations, European Union, United States and Russia. If the Europeans register an exception by either not voting or voting against the anticipated UN resolution on Palestine, they won't be as free afterward to accept all the consequences of that statehood. 

Of course, since decolonization back in the 1960s and '70s, there's a "non-aligned" movement of 135-plus countries that wield votes and influence at the UN. Latin America and Asia (e.g., China) have been reasserting themselves of late, especially on Middle East matters. But the Europeans -- yes, the age-old colonizers and imperialists -- who hold the license on legitimacy and respectability. Roughly half the EU member states will definitely vote against recognizing a Palestinian state. The rest are likely to abstain, support, or at least step out for a smoke when the vote is called. The EU likes to fall back on its treasured "consensus" excuse any time specific member states don't want to stand behind their votes. And, call it racism, but no one has really arrived who doesn't arrive in Europe. Kings, queens, barons, beaux-arts palaces and operas -- they're all in and about Europe.

So, why not recognize Palestine now? 

Whether or not one believes the current Israeli government has done anything more than lip service on direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, the fact is that Palestinian statehood is intrinsically a definition and completion of Israel's own sovereignty and borders. To some extent, Israel does hold a local veto, and declaring a state without Israel's input and consent will be worse than ineffective. It will be counter-productive to all concerned. 

By holding off on declaring statehood ever since Yasser Arafat transferred the flag to Ramallah, in the West Bank, the threat of a potential UDI has helped give the Palestinians enough leverage in the negotiations (back when there were negotiations) to be taken seriously. No matter if the diplomatic drought were mostly Netanyahu's own fault -- it really does take two to tango, and even then it involves a lot of practice. And it should be equally obvious, that proposing a UDI and gaining broad support at the UN, will generate a lasting backlash among Israelis of most stripes. Even if some of the Israelis do blame Netanyahu for this diplomatic rout, they will still hunker down even more than before. The siege mentality runs wide and deep.

There will be real consequences for Israel as well. Israel will no longer hold as many cards, and the Palestinians will no longer be as compliant with many of the transitional compromises Israel was able to impose previously. This includes control over customs and imports, the blockade of Gaza, undisputed ownership of West Bank aquifers, joint police patrols, etc. Jumpstarting significant progress toward a mutual and permanent resolution will ensure that Israeli prerogatives are accommodated in the eyes of international law as a full-fledged Palestine achieves its sovereignty. But time is running out.

After missing several opportunities to demonstrate to the Palestinians (or at least to the Europeans) that Israel is revved up to negotiate and to stop all new settlement construction for a serious period of time (one year), Netanyahu may today be missing his final opportunity, as the EU ministers are meeting with the intention of agreeing on a common position. I have posted about previous opportunities, including last spring when Netanyahu visited Washington right before Obama was traveling to Europe. As it happened, Obama and Netanyahu just couldn't get along, and the PM went viral by rejecting the notion that the pre-1967 borders should be the starting point for negotiating a permanent border between Israel and Palestine. Hardly a radical idea, and even if it were, Netanyahu's sharp response left Obama with no credibility to say Netanyahu was close to stepping up if Europe just tells the Palestinians to hold off on their UDI.

So now, it's no longer possible for Prime Minister Netanyahu, nor even for President Obama, to forestall the UDI on the mere promise of some upcoming negotiations. It will be up to French President Nicolas Sarkozy. After this week, the only way to avoid a major Israeli diplomatic defeat -- and (perhaps tolerably so for Netanyahu) a double-dip recession in the peace process -- will be for Netanyahu to actually start making peace without either making excuses or providing excuses for the Palestinians to use themselves. And that will truly involve hard work and painful concessions -- painful, because they will have to be genuine.

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