Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s “hard-line” speech to Congress Tuesday has made President Barack Obama’s European trip this week all the more difficult, according to Middle East analyst Stephen P. Cohen.
In his three-country European tour, Obama was hoping to convince America’s allies not to go along with a United Nations declaration of an independent Palestinian state in September. Obama, in his Middle East speech last week, termed the Palestinian bid for UN recognition a misguided plan to isolate Israel.
But Cohen said that by repeating “the hard-line positions of the Likud Party from the times of [former Prime Minister Yitzchak] Shamir,” Netanyahu drove European leaders to the Palestinian camp.
“I think that approach is precisely what brought the Europeans to stop waiting for negotiations [between Israelis and Palestinians] in the belief they would not accomplish anything and to go along with the idea of the UN recognizing a Palestinian state,” Cohen said.
He then named several countries he believes would support the Palestinian effort — among them Spain, Portugal, Greece, Russia, China, Mongolia and possibly France.
“Obama is not going to get a consensus [in opposition to the Palestinians],” Cohen said. “Will he get half the Europeans? It’s the best he could hope for and he is certainly not going to get more than half.”
That could change, however, if Hamas begins to “have more influence in the interim Palestinian government than we think,” he added.
But even a united Europe against the Palestinian bid for UN statehood would not be enough to block the move, according to David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee.
“If the Palestinians tomorrow submitted a resolution saying the moon was made of green cheese, they would automatically get 100 votes or more, hence a majority” in the 192-member General Assembly, Harris said. “It’s a sad commentary on GA realities.”
But Harris said the Europeans are significant because “they represent a kind of moral majority. With European approval, there is a much-coveted legitimacy to the move. Without it, that respectability is largely denied because the majority votes will come from the likes of Cuba, Pakistan, Venezuela, Bolivia, Syria and so forth. That is why Europe is so critical.”
He said Obama’s objective would be to try to reach a consensus among the 27 European nations to vote against the Palestinian move. So far only Germany has made that commitment.
“It’s not clear today if he will be able to forge a common position,” Harris said. “If he could, that would be the best outcome for the United States and Israel. The fact that the U.S., Europe and other consequential countries that have moral backbone stood against it would be a very telling statement.”
The bid for UN recognition is one that goes against every approach and initiative tried in the past to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian impasse, as well as commitments by both sides to negotiate a settlement, according to Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International.
“I don’t believe this will bring peace any sooner, and it opens a mountain of questions,” he said.
Mariaschin pointed out that both the European Union and the UN are members of the Quartet that has been working with both sides to resolve their differences at the negotiating table.
“To now support UDI [unilateral declaration of independence] flies in the face of their own mechanism [for resolution],” he said. “They should not be at this stage now. They should say as the U.S. has that it should not stand and won’t work and is troublesome. … You can’t as a member of the Quartet that favors negotiations … allow an entity that is not even a member state take an end-run around it. The fact that so many countries see this as business as usual is troublesome. There is tremendous hypocrisy at play here.”
Mariaschin added that to change the rules because of frustration with the pace of progress “is a bad excuse for moving ahead with an ill-conceived idea that cannot resolve the issue.”
Should nothing derail the Palestinian effort, the move “may end up eroding the viability of the UN as an international organization,” observed Amy Goldstein, a former director of UN Affairs for B’nai B’rith International who also spearheaded Hadassah’s efforts at the UN.
“What process will the next state that wants to be created have to go through?” she asked, noting that until now states have first held a referendum to allow citizens to decide if they want independence. The Palestinians have not done that.
A UN declaration of Palestinian statehood could also trigger a new round of Palestinian violence against Israel, suggested Ran Curiel, Israel’s ambassador to the European Union.
“In the Middle East when you end a peace process, you don’t necessarily go back to the status quo ante, unfortunately,” he said, referring to the violence that followed the Oslo peace accords in 1993 and the Camp David talks in 1997.
“I’m saying that when a process that was destined to achieve peace failed, we were faced with a round of violence, and one cannot exclude that happening again, but not on Israel’s initiative,” Curiel said in an interview with the European Union Information website. “We have an interest in negotiating a peaceful agreement.”
Asked how he assessed European views on the Palestinian UN initiative, Curiel said he believes it is “fully supportive of a negotiated settlement. All the recent EU statements speak only of a state coming ‘through negotiations.’ There may be a change in the future, but this is not the case right now.”
Although Obama said the Palestinian move at the UN would simply serve to further isolate Israel on the world stage, Richard Falk, a former professor of international relations at Princeton University, contended in an article that the Palestinian move is not meant to delegitimize Israel but rather to legitimize the Palestinians.
“It remains politically significant [for the Palestinians] to make use of the U.N. and friendly governments to gain visibility and legitimacy for their claims of right,” he wrote.
But Alon Ben-Meir, a professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University, wrote that Obama’s Middle East speech last week about using Israel’s pre-1967 borders with mutually agreed land swaps as a basis “should give the Palestinians pause before they go to the United Nations General Assembly to seek statehood recognition.”
He said Obama’s comments served to “marginalize” the settlement issue — a major stumbling block to the resumption of talks — “while encouraging some key member states of the European Union to rethink their endorsement of a Palestinian state come September,” he said.