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EU Struggles for One Voice on Palestinian Status Vote at UN

EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton
The EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, told reporters Sept. 12 in Cairo that before a UN resolution is drafted, “there is no position” of the EU. Photographer: Georges Gobet/AFP/Getty Images

The European Union is struggling to agree on a common position over Palestinian efforts to win United Nations statehood recognition, exposing difficulties in unifying the bloc’s 27 members to wield more global clout.

While France and the U.K. signaled they’re likely to support the Palestinians at least in the UN General Assembly, Germany has warned about the repercussions on peace talks with Israel. Others such as the Netherlands and the Czech Republic have indicated they’ll oppose the effort, a position at odds with a broader swath of Europeans who support the UN strategy.

The EU’s foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, told reporters Sept. 12 in Cairo that before a UN resolution is drafted, “there is no position” of the EU.

“This will do a lot of damage to the EU’s credibility and its desire to play a bigger role in the Middle East,” Shada Islam, a Middle East expert at the Brussels-based Friends of Europe policy-advisory group, said in a telephone interview.

As diplomats maneuver around the statehood strategy at a pivotal stage in one of the Middle East’s most entrenched conflicts, the wrangling has laid bare divisions among European states that have varying relations to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. It has also made European governments the target of diplomatic parleying as the two sides and their allies seek to win over heavyweights such as Germany, which has the EU’s biggest economy.

The EU doesn’t have much time left to coordinate, with the Palestinians planning to present their application for membership on Sept. 23 for consideration by the UN Security Council.

‘Battlefield is Europe’

“The battlefield is Europe,” Robert Malley, director of the Brussels-based International Crisis Group’s Middle East program, said in an interview. The vast majority of Asian, Latin American and African countries are likely to support statehood, he said. “Europe is the X factor, and what the Israelis, Palestinians and the U.S. are fighting for.”

European diplomats are trying to steer the Palestinians away from a showdown in the 15-member Security Council, where the U.S. has pledged to veto any resolution seeking to make Palestine a member state of the world body, according to French officials. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas would have a more receptive audience in the UN General Assembly, where Palestinians say about 140 of the 193 members are likely to support the bid.

Upgrading Status

A General Assembly vote would upgrade the Palestinians’ observer status from “entity” to “non-member state.” French and U.K. officials said they would be amenable to a pro-Palestinian vote there, depending on the language of a resolution.

The elevation to non-member state would place the Palestinians in a position similar to that of the Holy See, the government of the Roman Catholic Church, enabling them to sign international treaties. That could include having cases heard in the International Criminal Court.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has echoed other European leaders in saying she prefers to focus on returning to the peace process, which the Palestinians broke off a year ago after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a partial 10-month construction freeze in West Bank settlements. Italian officials have said they’ll probably follow Germany.

Germany must consider “what happens the day after and which decisions will at least not throw us back in terms of the peace process,” Merkel said in Berlin on Sept. 9. U.S. President Barack Obama and Netanyahu have also said the establishment of a Palestinian state, living in peace alongside Israel, should be worked out through direct negotiations.

‘One Voice’

Merkel declined to say how Germany would vote at the UN.

“There is a very great ambition among Europeans on this question to speak with one voice,” German Foreign Ministry spokesman Andreas Peschke told reporters Sept. 14. “I can’t say what voting intent is at the moment since I don’t know what will be put on the table, or whether it will be put on the table.”

The EU has tried to put its stamp on the peace process, working alongside the U.S., UN and Russia as a member of the so-called Quartet, a body tasked with paving the way to a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. Ashton’s position was created two years ago in an attempt to give the EU one voice on foreign-policy and security issues.

The Dutch government rejects unilateral action on the part of the Palestinians, Foreign Minister Uri Rosenthal told the parliament in The Hague this week.

Czech Prime Minister Petr Necas was quoted by the CTK newswire as saying on Sept. 15, “I can only say that we are convinced that any unilateral step will only harm the peace process and we do not support unilateral steps.”

“Unified here would mean 25 out of 27” EU states voting in the same direction, Volker Perthes, director of the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, said in a Sept. 13 interview in Berlin. “I think there’s still a chance, but I have a certain fear that it won’t happen.”

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