Poker With UN Votes: Europe Divided on Palestinian Question

By in New York

He's the first European Council President to speak before the United Nations General Assembly -- but he'll beallowed to say precious little. Herman van Rompuy will avoid controversial commitments, serving only to highlight European discord over the Palestinian question.

European Council President Herman van Rompuy will address the UN General Assembly. Zoom
AFP

European Council President Herman van Rompuy will address the UN General Assembly.

It's a historic premiere: For the first time, a European Council President will appear before the United Nations General Assembly. But protocol will allow Herman van Rompuy to make only a statement, instead of a proper speech, because he is not a head of state. Still, it's symbolic step in the path to a collective European foreign policy.

Van Rompuy will speak after British Prime Minister David Cameron, and before Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The moment will highlight the top EU representative's dilemma, since there is no unified European position on the General Assembly's most important question -- whether to allow UN membership for Palestinians. On this matter van Rompuy can only speak with restraint.

He will not surge ahead with his own suggestions for a new start to the Middle East peace process, unlike French President Nicolas Sarkozy. He also won't warn the Palestinians to avoid a showdown with the US in the UN Security Council. Both positions would be too controversial. The Belgian will name only the fundamental elements of a peace settlement (a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, Israel's special need for security). And he will recommend a renewal of talks between Israel and the Palestinians.

Much Depends on Palestinian Approach

The empty statement will show that van Rompuy wishes to avoid a specific foreign policy profile for fear of resentment among EU members. But it also shows how at odds the Europeans remain on the Palestinian question.

The potential vote in the UN Security Council and in the UN General Assembly will expose these differences. "I don't believe that we will see a unified position of all 27 EU countries," says Nick Witney of the European Council of Foreign Relations.

One important variable is which proposal the Palestinians submit on Friday. Will they insist on full membership, which would have to be discussed in the Security Council? Or will they be content with an improved observer status, which can be decided upon by the General Assembly?

President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to submit a request for full membership after his UN speech on Friday in order to not disappoint his constituents back home. But Abbas does seem willing to submit to pressure from US President Barack Obama and most of Europe to accept a delay on the vote. This would give diplomats time to negotiate a new peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians, after which they could settle the question of UN membership.

European Votes Remain Secret

Which way European representatives might vote is likely to remain as protected as a state secret until the end. The 27 EU foreign ministers have all agreed not to make premature decisions in public. But past statements help construct a likely scenario: On an immediate vote on the Security Council, the German government would vote with the US in rejecting the Abbas plan.

Following accusations of unreliable foreign-policy decisions in recent months, Berlin has a strong interest in staying by America's side. France and Great Britain will likely abstain from voting, with a view toward the US, though they're inclined to favorable decisions on Palestine. But everyone in New York is working feverishly to make sure this scenario doesn't come to pass.

Should the Palestinians allow a delay on the vote in the Security Council, then the "Vatican option" could be an alternative. They could apply to have their status enhanced from "observer" to "observing non-member state." This status, also held by the Vatican, would let them enter into international agreements. This option would almost certainly pass the General Assembly, and the Security Council would have no veto.

Berlin's Stance Unclear

But even for the Vatican option, they would lack full European backing. About 20 of the 27 EU member states would probably vote for it. But a handful -- including the Czech Republic, Italy and the Netherlands -- would likely oppose any such status enhancement. Berlin's position remains unclear.

Witney suggests that an overwhelming vote in favor of admitting the Palestinians would actually be useful for the Americans. "The US government would hate being isolated," the foreign policy expert says. "But it would give them more control over Israel again." If Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw the Europeans side with the Palestinians, Witney added, he would be forced to give greater consideration to his most important allies.

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