"We've lost Europe," Israeli diplomats were reported to have informed their superiors yesterday as a rash of unexpected defections to the Palestinian side began to unfold. Israelis must now ask themselves why?
For many years Palestinians have been able to rely on a solid majority in all broad-based multilateral institutions representative of the international community. They had no difficulty securing 50 percent plus one in any of those bodies. But the long-standing Israeli counter argument has been that it could counter the Palestinian "quantitative majority" in international bodies with a "quality minority" of Western and democratic states.
Today, in the context of the Palestine Liberation Organization request from the United Nations General Assembly for a mission status upgrade to "nonmember observer state," Israel's claim to a "quality minority" evaporated. European state after state announced they were switching from abstentions to yes votes, or from no votes to abstentions, all of this movement in the Palestinian direction.
The most dramatic of these defections is that of Germany, a solidly pro-Israel voice in multilateral institutions since the founding of the Israeli state. Germany said it will abstain because it asked for and did not receive any assurances from Israel on settlement activity. France, Spain, Sweden (which voted against Palestinian membership in UNESCO), Italy and a whole rash of other countries announced they would vote yes. As it always prefers to do on Israeli-Palestinian matters, Britain delicately abstained from the unending historical crisis it almost single-handedly created. Another dramatic switch from a no vote to an abstention was Australia, due to a cabinet and party revolt against the Prime Minister on the issue.
Israel's "quality minority" now consists of the United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, Panama, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau. The Israeli argument that the postcolonial world may be pro-Palestinian, but the democratic West is solidly pro-Israel collapsed. The "quality minority," is dead, at least for now and on this vote.
The reasons for this shift begin with the fact that no party genuinely committed to a two-state solution between Israel and Palestinians should find the language of the draft resolution terribly objectionable. Much of the international community, including the West, seems to feel the need to reassert its commitment to a two-state solution.
Second, the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas underscored the extent to which the PLO and, more importantly, the Palestinian Authority which governs the Palestinian-controlled areas of the West Bank, need an immediate political boost. Hamas's "victory" over Israel was illusory, but it has provided a bump of intoxication and popularity that, combined with the political and financial doldrums of the PA, threaten to shift the balance of power dramatically in favor of Hamas.
Clearly both European vote changes and American calls for restraint regarding Israel's avowed "retaliatory measures" reflect the understanding that any effort to "punish" the PLO at the expense of the ability of the PA to govern in the West Bank will accrue immediately to the benefit of Hamas.
Flush with "victory" and a surge of popularity at home, Hamas switched its position on the U.N. initiative, now encouraging the PLO to go forward. Hamas is simultaneously hoping to get some credit for whatever success Palestinians achieve at the U.N., and also to benefit from whatever retaliatory measures are taken by Israel or the United States, especially the Congress, against the PLO or the PA.
Third, it seems likely that the PLO made assurances to the Europeans and others that they would not seek to join other multilateral agencies or the International Criminal Court. Instead, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said in the wake of the vote he wants to immediately resume negotiations with Israel without preconditions, which means dropping the long-standing settlement freeze demand.
Skeptics are correct that the U.N. vote won't change anything on the ground and is almost entirely symbolic. And no party is volunteering to replace the United States as the broker between Israel and the Palestinians. But the international communit just jumped at an opportunity to give everyone a shove in the right direction.
Israelis must ask themselves how they lost their "quality minority" and why so many European and Western states that have been historically supportive of them or neutral moved rather dramatically today in the Palestinian direction. The war between Israel and Hamas shows that the situation on the ground is fundamentally unstable and untenable. The dramatic shift in the diplomatic landscape at the U.N. today demonstrates that the international community understands that and is losing patience.
For the Palestinians, the next step should be a pivot toward seeking a rapprochement with Washington, because without American support they are unlikely to be able to make further progress on their goal of independent statehood. The Israelis, however, need to do some immediate soul-searching, for they seem to have convinced many of their former Western allies they are simply not interested in a genuine two-state solution.