Europe Divided Over Palestinian State

BERLIN — Divisions that have surfaced within the European Union over recognition of the Palestinian Authority as an independent and sovereign state are unlikely to be resolved ahead of a crucial vote in the United Nations next week.

A two-state settlement is part of the long-term official EU line on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But while several European countries, led by France, are partially supporting the PA claim, four countries, particularly Germany, are likely to oppose the move.

Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and the Czech Republic are risking an open schism within the EU that would undermine the group’s ability to decisively intervene in conflicting geopolitical issues.

“European governments currently opposing recognition of a Palestinian state should reconsider their attitude and work instead within the EU framework to pursue the European line of consistently support a two-state settlement,” Muriel Asseburg, head of the research division on Middle East and Africa at the Berlin-based German institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP, after its German name), told IPS.

The European schism surfaced prominently at a meeting of EU foreign ministers in the Polish city Sopot on Sept. 3-4.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé called on his peers to act unanimously in order to ensure that “neither Israel nor the PA suffer a defeat, nor the U.S. be forced into isolated support of Israel.”

But Germany is reluctant to support the PA demand for recognition as an independent state. German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle said in Sopot that “Germany has a particular responsibility towards Israel” as consequence of the German Nazi persecution and obliteration of the European Jewish population during World War II.

Asseburg points out that EU member states, including Germany, have supported “the building of a Palestinian state with considerable financial and technical assistance” since the 1993 Oslo peace accords between the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) and Israel.

“In 1999, toward the end of the end of the interim period agreed in Oslo, the EU announced that it would consider recognising a Palestinian state ‘in due course,’” Asseburg told IPS. “The German government, the largest European donor to the Palestinians, agreed last May that the PA was already ‘operating above the threshold of a functioning state in key areas.'”

Opposing the PA claim for statehood now would not only be inconsistent, but also represent “a severe blow to EU credibility in the Arab world — and far beyond too.”

Juppé said at the foreign ministers meeting that it would be “catastrophe” if the PA gathers a favorable vote from a large majority of states at the UNGA but such a vote is vetoed by the U.S. at the United Nations Security Council (UNSC).

To avoid such “catastrophe,” the French, supported by several European countries, including Austria, Belgium, Finland, Luxemburg, Poland, Slovenia, Spain, and Sweden, have been persuading the PA to seek an upgrade to observer status similar to that of the Vatican.

A draft resolution for an upgrade would only require a simple majority in the 193-member General Assembly. But the United States and Israel’s allies are expected to either vote against such a resolution or abstain.

Despite the small number of negative votes, however, the Palestinians are assured of the enhanced status in the General Assembly — if they decide to take that route.

But the PA has so far rejected such semantic upgrading on the grounds that it would not bring any major change to its present status.

On Friday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced PA plans to go for complete statehood, which is certain to be vetoed by the United States.

Any draft resolution on statehood has to be approved by the Security Council (nine votes and no vetoes) and subsequently by a two-thirds majority in the General Assembly.

Westerwelle argued that the declaration of “a viable Palestinian state can only be the result of negotiations” with Israel.

Asseburg says such an argument is not sustainable. The PA application for recognition “can hardly be termed unilateral. What the PA actually wants is to crystallize the support of the international community and internationalize the resolution of the conflict.

“Given that the peace process has made no meaningful progress since 1995, the U.S. and the Middle East quartet [formed by the EU, Russia, the U.N., and the U.S. government] have also been discredited as mediators,” Asseburg added. “It is high time to find new ways to arrive at the two-state settlement.”

Sarah Hibbin, researcher at the Hotung programme for law, human rights and peace building at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London, says that a U.N. General Assembly vote declaring that it “collectively recognized” Palestine would be more symbolic than legal if vetoed by the UNSC.

In a study on the legitimacy of the Palestinian bid for recognition as a sovereign state, Hibbin and other international law experts at the University of London noted that the PLO was granted observer status in the U.N. back in 1974, and was invited to participate in all sessions and attend all international conferences convened under the auspices of the U.N.

This status granted the PLO a unique position in the U.N. with more extensive rights of participation than other entities participating in an observer capacity.

In 1998, the UNGA granted the Palestinian representation additional rights and privileges of participation. As consequence, Palestine is invited to participate in UNSC debates on the situation in the Middle East.

This status is similar to that accorded to U.N. member states not members of the UNSC, to participate in debates when the UNSC considers that the interests of those members are specially affected by a matter on its agenda.

The overwhelming majority of states formally recognize the PA or the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people and maintain bilateral relations, some to the level of full diplomatic relations.

The PA also maintains permanent representative offices in more than 70 countries. More than 114 nations recognized Palestine following its 1988 Declaration of Independence.

Palestine has observer status in international organisations such as UNESCO and the World Health Organization, and is a full member of the Non-Aligned group, the Islamic Conference, the Group of 77 and China, and the League of Arab States.

(Inter Press Service)