All eyes turned to France this week after the Palestinians failed to round up enough votes in the United Nations Security Council for a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state and setting a two-year deadline for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank.
Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said Tuesday that he would meet with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius to discuss a French proposal designed to restart peace talks leading to a peace treaty in two years. It reportedly would not set a timetable for withdrawal but would refer to the need for “mutual recognition.”
The two-year deadline and other provisions in the French proposal may make it objectionable to Israel — which is said to be against any resolution that would spell out a timetable for either talks or Israeli withdrawal. As of Tuesday, the Obama administration said it hadn’t decided whether to threaten a veto if the resolution were presented for a vote by the end of the year. Nor was it clear whether France would proceed in the face of such a threat.
A diplomatic source noted that Fabius conferred Monday with his German and British counterparts. Although there were reports that they failed to reach a consensus, France later reaffirmed its desire to submit a resolution on the Palestinian issue.
Asked if France was prepared to wait until after Israel’s March 17 election, the source said that was not in the cards.
“The quicker the better,” he said. “It is time to move ahead on this.”
He added that as of Tuesday it was still unclear whether Jordan was preparing to introduce a resolution on behalf of the Palestinians.
“The Jordanian delegation is being encouraged by the Palestinian Authority to present a resolution,” he said. “I don’t know whose resolution will be submitted. It depends on what Jordan proposes and whether it is a good, balanced resolution. If it needs more work, France will propose its own. And the U.S. is saying it wants to see the resolutions before making a decision.”
Another diplomatic source has been quoted as saying the U.S. is now open to a resolution calling for binding Israeli-Palestinian peace talks if the timeframe remains unspecified.
But Aaron David Miller, a former adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state and a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said he is confident the Obama administration would veto any resolution that calls for Israel to end its occupation within two years.
“And it would be hard pressed to abstain on such a resolution,” he added.
Gerald Steinberg, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University, said an abstention would be comparable to a yes vote in the 15-member Security Council in which the U.S. is one of five permanent members.
Miller explained that it would be “risky for an [American] administration that is so reluctant to be hard and tough against Israeli settlements to now — during an Israeli election campaign — to all of a sudden go after the Israelis. It would be viewed as a transparent effort to intercede in the Israeli election campaign.”
He added that if the Obama administration can’t get the French to adopt compromise language or to defer the whole issue until after the Israeli election — and if the Palestinian resolution contains deadlines or policy positions — it will “probably veto it.”
“Things in the region now are so bad that a veto of a text that some of the Europeans do not support strikes me as something the administration is prepared to live with,” Miller observed.
American failure to veto a Security Council resolution that sets a timeframe and defines Israel’s borders would serve only to deepen the divide between the Obama and Netanyahu governments, Steinberg noted.
“It would be a symbolic vote without any real impact on the ground, but it would have a very strong impact on U.S.-Israeli relations if it was not vetoed,” he said.
“It would not be unprecedented,” he pointed out, recalling that during the Carter administration the U.S. refused to veto UN resolutions critical of Israel.
Asked about the Palestinian demand of a peace treaty in two years along with an Israeli withdrawal to its 1967 borders, Steinberg replied: “Two years in the Middle East is a very long time. Everything will be different in two years. We could have a different Israeli government and [Mahmoud] Abbas might not be president of the Palestinian Authority. And Hamas may have reinserted itself into the West Bank.”
The Palestinian decision to press for UN recognition before the end of the year comes after its successful campaign to convince European parliaments that the time for Palestinian statehood is now. Among the parliaments that approved non-binding resolutions calling for Palestinian statehood were Britain, France, Spain, Portugal and Ireland. Only the Swedish government actually recognized a Palestinian state, but the government collapsed shortly thereafter.
Steinberg said the Swedish action was “meaningless because Sweden is a member of the European Union and foreign policy is made collectively.”
Nevertheless, the Palestinian effort for recognition is now reaching a crescendo and to “back down now would be a huge loss of face,” he said.
As for waiting until after the Israeli election to see if the next government would be more receptive to Palestinian demands in peace talks, Steinberg stressed the Palestinians believe “they can’t wait.” And delaying a UN Security Council vote is not an option because the issue “becomes less predictable [after the new year] because the process would have to start again.”
“The key issue is not whether the Palestinians get a majority vote in the Security Council, it is whether America will veto it,” he said.
David Makovsky, the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said he is troubled by two sets of issues.
“One is decoupling the issue of Palestinian statehood from the issue of peace,” he said. “The UN plays to Palestinian strength because it focuses on rights. But nations have to have responsibilities — and that means peace. … There is a reason the Palestinians have intertwined peace and statehood. And one could understand why they want to bring the issue to the UN. But I question the wisdom of doing so when there is still a chance the parties could negotiate a deal. … Only if it should become clear that there is no hope for direct talks should there be legitimate debate about the value of the U.S. pursuing a more balanced Security Council resolution.”
And raising this issue now at the start of the Israeli election campaign makes it “political dynamite,” Makovsky said.
“The narrative of the Israeli right is that Israel is the only force that stands between an imposed solution,” he explained. “And any imposed solution would be bound to bolster [Benjamin] Netanyahu [in his re-election campaign for prime minister] and the right. It is ironic that Netanyahu would effectively turn to Abbas to bolster his electoral hopes.”
Should the Obama administration opt not to veto a resolution calling for Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state, a poll of Americans found it has considerable public leeway on the issue.