A European “maybe” for Palestine

Although EU members have not reached a concensus on recognising Palestine at the United Nations, the arguments in favour of European recognition outweigh the arguments against.   

Although EU members have not reached a concensus on recognising Palestine at the United Nations, the arguments in favour of European recognition outweigh the arguments against. 

On Monday night, the Palestinian Authority submitted a draft resolution to the United Nations General Assembly that, if approved, will upgrade Palestine’s status from “observer entity” to “non-member observer state.” A positive vote could change the outlook for bilateral talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

The vote comes after recent violence in Gaza has ostensibly delivered the coup de grâce to any realistic chance for meaningful negotiations to resolve a conflict that remains key to the wider region’s future. In this context, many factors will influence the General Assembly’s decision, one of the most significant of which will be the European Union’s position.

While EU countries have failed to reach a consensus, the European vote most likely will not hinder the resolution’s adoption, which would make Palestine the second state to gain non-member observer-state status, after the Holy See.

Unlike the process for determining full UN membership, a simple majority in the General Assembly is sufficient to grant observer-state status, with no recourse to the UN Security Council. Given that 132 UN members already recognise Palestine, the vote is likely to be positive.

The draft resolution has evoked US President Barack Obama’s 2010 speech at the General Assembly, in which he expressed the hope to “come back next year…[and] have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations – an independent, sovereign state of Palestine.” But, despite Obama’s supportive words, the US has expressed opposition to the Palestinian bid, because it would disrupt the status quo – which is already being threatened by escalating tensions between the Obama administration and Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu over how to address Iran’s nuclear program.

In fact, the certainty of a US veto prevented Palestine’s bid for full UN membership from reaching the Security Council last year. Now, with the recent cessation of hostilities with Israel emboldening Hamas, its beleaguered rival for Palestinians’ support, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, is proceeding with the less ambitious observer-state approach in the General Assembly.

As a result, the draft resolution asserts that all of the key issues – borders, the status of refugees, control of Jerusalem, security, water rights, and the release of Palestinian political prisoners – would be negotiated at a later stage. But the fact that non-member observer-state status would give the Palestinians recourse to the International Criminal Court (ICC) is eliciting concern among European leaders.

With the vote set to coincide with the 65th anniversary of the 1947 UN decision to partition Palestine, this sensitive issue has rattled many, including the European Commission – although its voice has once again been drowned out by its member states’ cacophony. France, Portugal, and Spain have firmly declared that they will vote in favor of Palestine’s status upgrade, while Germany and the Czech Republic oppose it. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom may abstain from the vote, and is calling upon the US to take a “decisive lead” in seeking a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

To be sure, approval of the Palestinian bid carries significant risks. It could, for example, provoke the Israelis to dig in their heels, on the grounds that it is part of an effort to delegitimise the Zionist cause. It could create a rift between Europe and the US, which hopes to avoid isolation in the vote. And observer-state status contradicts the reality on the ground, in which the Palestinian Authority does not actually control the territories claimed.

But, from a European perspective, the arguments in favor of Palestine’s bid carry greater weight than the arguments against it. First and foremost, blocking Palestine’s access to the ICC would contradict European values and undermine the EU’s hard-fought and widely acknowledged role as a defender of international law and multilateral institutions.

Moreover, against the background of a stalled peace process, a positive vote could be a game-changer, advancing the EU’s efforts to support negotiations and a comprehensive solution. It would also provide a much-needed political context for Palestine’s state-building efforts, which Europe has actively championed. Indeed, beyond official European aid totaling more than €1 billion ($1.3 billion) annually, the EU has invested heavily in institutional development in Palestine.

The EU has always supported a two-state solution, despite the challenging demographic reality, not to mention the need to preserve the Jewish state's identity. Granting observer-state status to Palestine would take off the table the prospect of a “one-state” solution, which has recently gained momentum among experts.

But these sound reasons for supporting Palestine’s bid probably will not prevent the EU from delivering a split vote, the reverberations of which will not only echo throughout the Arab world, inviting accusations of hypocrisy, but will also hinder European efforts to reset relations with countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

A split vote thus undermines European interests, delivering an unequivocal blow to European foreign policy in a challenging geopolitical environment. Indeed, Europe’s divided stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict exemplifies its poor record of achieving foreign-policy consensus. Europe thus will lose a crucial opportunity to transform its own status from the widely resented source of global financial troubles to a powerful force for peace.

This article first appeared with Project Syndicate

The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.

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