When the Palestinian Liberation Organisation submits a resolution at the U.N. General Assembly later today to upgrade their U.N. status to "non-member state," two vote tallies are likely to be tabulated—the overall vote of the 193 U.N. member states and the 27 votes of the EU member states. The EU has become the most undecided and therefore scrutinized bloc at the U.N.
Last year when PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas applied to the U.N. Security Council for full membership Nick Witney and myself co-authored a European Council on Foreign Relations memo—Palestinian Statehood At The U.N.: Why Europeans Should Vote 'Yes'—in which we argued that Europe should collectively vote in favor, given that it would be consistent with European policy positions, interests, values, and investment in Palestinian state-building.
Now that the vote is being taken to the UNGA—a step we recommended at the time given the guaranteed U.S. veto at the UNSC—it is still the case that the Europeans should vote yes. In fact, that case is stronger today given developments in the intervening year—more failed negotiations which lacked clear terms of reference, more settlement growth, more violence, more American foot dragging etc.—and given that the text of the resolution is now available and almost entirely parrots EU positions.
If the Europeans remain committed to a two-state outcome and if they have read the text of the resolution then the case for not voting yes becomes a very weak one indeed. Of course, neither the substance of the resolution nor what is best for a peaceful outcome on Israel-Palestine are the only factors that go into determining how Europeans will vote. For Europeans (or at least some of them), Israel-Palestine tends to be an issue that crosscuts domestic politics, the role of national history in contemporary foreign policy, transatlantic relations and mercantilist interests.
A unified European vote was never really on the cards. If, as now seems likely, the EU27 split their vote two ways—between yeses and abstentions, with zero no’s and avoiding the three-way split that occurred with Palestine’s UNESCO application—then it would probably be fair to notch this up as a mini-achievement. A two-way split might also gain Europe a little attention from the protagonists themselves, notably Israel, and from the White House. One could also argue that avoiding no votes would continue to build on the progress Europe began to make in taking a more forward leaning stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—starting with the Foreign Affairs Council conclusions in December 2009 (under Swedish presidency), through the E3 joint-yes vote and statement on the UNSC settlement resolution of February 2011, and up to the FAC conclusions of May of this year, notably moving the ball forward on issues such as labelling of settlement products.
Ironically, this vote is taking place in the same week that Israel’s ruling Likud party selected a list of candidates for January’s Knesset elections overwhelmingly hostile to any two-state outcome. The Israeli government will mainly dismiss this vote as being not very important while the PLO still has no discernible strategy for building progress on the back of this vote (although a post-vote focus on internal reconciliation and visit of PLO Chair Abbas to Gaza would mark an obviously sensible first step). The vote is unlikely to mark a real turning point on Israel-Palestine and it would be a mistake to overdramatize its ramifications. Nevertheless, it is a development that will be scrutinized in terms of what it means for the different actors moving forward. Here are some suggested takeaways from a European perspective:
1) Diplomacy or violence. In the absence of more effective diplomacy, developments of the Israel-Palestinian front will continue to be driven primarily by one party or another’s attempt to impose its will through the use of force, including further settlement construction and entrenchment of the occupation. The U.N. vote is a small step in the direction of nurturing a more assertive diplomatic alternative. If Europeans (or Americans for that matter) are true to their rhetoric of non-violent conflict resolution then they cannot be so squeamish when it comes to diplomatic pressure. If I remember correctly they themselves tend to resort to sanctions as a policy tool not infrequently.
2) Europe and the Palestinians. Sadly but predictably the European focus on institution building has not advanced a political horizon and a more relevant approach will have to pay equal attention to Palestinian political capacity building. The U.N. upgrade should be seen in that context. The recent Gaza crisis should also be a moment for Europeans to reconsider their absence of political channels to the Hamas leadership and their arm’s length position on Palestinian political reconciliation. Europe should become an active promoter of Palestinian unity and also revisit specific initiatives that would enhance a political role, such as ways of addressing a Palestinian political presence in Jerusalem, a European role at the Gaza border—a rebooted EU Border Assistance Mission (EUBAM)—and giving a higher profile to Area C projects.
3) Europe and Israel. Europe draws a clear distinction between the legitimacy of Israel inside the green line and the illegitimacy of the occupation. But it has failed to back that up in demonstrative ways via policies that communicate that message clearly to the Israeli public and that would begin to reshape the cost-benefit calculations for an Israel which maintains the occupation. Europe should build on whatever momentum the UN vote has generated to move in this direction. Europe has not yet, for instance, made a consistent and forceful political push for Israel’s government and its governing parties to explicitly endorse a two-state solution based on the 1967 lines (despite making similar repeated and insistent demands of the Palestinian factions). Likewise, Europe should carry forward the case regarding labelling and ultimately banning of settlement products as well as taking other relevant measures regarding settlements, settlers and the occupation. At the same time, Europeans should be enhancing their outreach and dialogue with so far neglected but important communities inside Israel, notably the ultra-Orthodox and Russians. Israelis will no doubt vociferously protest European voting patterns at the U.N. tonight; they will though also respect Europeans more in the morning for having stood their ground.
4) Europe and the U.S. The U.S. administration of course lobbied Europeans to join in opposing Palestine’s U.N. upgrade. Some Europeans are finally catching on that, by not always standing to attention when the U.S. issues demands on Israel-Palestine, they will not be undermining their bilateral relations with the U.S. and in some instances might be doing the U.S. a favor by playing an outrider role to American policies. Europe going further than where the U.S. feels it can go on this issue makes it more relevant as an actor and can even create more space for U.S. policy. On Israel-Palestine it makes more sense for Europeans and Americans to pursue a division of labour rather than a coalition of impotence.
5) The Holy Grail of Negotiations. Most European governments and especially those abstaining have stressed the absolute necessity of a return to negotiations. What they have failed to explain is why resumed negotiations this time around would produce a different outcome to the failed efforts and foot-dragging of the past. In fact, in accumulating a little leverage for the Palestinians and by helping establish terms of reference for a two-state outcome, the U.N. vote could start to contribute to a more conducive context in which future negotiations can take place. But for negotiations to really make a difference, more will have to be done on parameters and on creating consequences for recalcitrant actors.
6) An insult to the International Criminal Court (ICC). The position taken by some European governments in linking their prospective U.N. vote to a Palestinian commitment of non-pursuit of an ICC option was a particularly ill-advised thing to do. Suspicions already exist as to whether the ICC is a tool for universal or exclusively Western justice. It is illegitimate to suggest that the Palestinians voluntarily deny themselves recourse to the ICC. Worse, it is politically naïve to imagine that a Palestinian president can publically make such a commitment. Israel is right to be worried about ICC jurisdiction. But the correct response is surely to avoid policies that would land one in front of the ICC. (Despite vilifying the Goldstone report, for instance, Israel already seems to have internalized some of its findings during the latest Gaza operation.)
7) The two-state solution and the flat earth society. Part of the European analysis which led to unexpectedly strong support for the Palestinian upgrade at the U.N. is the receding prospect of a two-state outcome being a realizable proposition. That is welcome and overdue and suggests that, after the U.N. vote, Europeans should look deeper into political strategies that go further in asserting the urgency for change rather than slipping back into business as usual. However, it should also encourage new thinking as to what a fair, dignified and democratic Israeli-Palestinian dispensation might look like, challenging the existing two state parameters as being the only way to achieve a two-state, or indeed any sustainable and acceptable outcome.