U.N. vote on Palestine status inflicts new divides in Europe, NATO

Palestinians celebrate the U.N. vote to upgrade their territory's status, conferring de facto recognition of Palestine statehood. The 138-9 vote, with 41 abstentions, was seen as a rebuke of U.S. policy in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
(Atef Safadi / European Pressphoto Agency)

Thursday’s overwhelming U.N. vote to elevate the status of Palestine at the world body inflicts yet another fracture in the facade of Western solidarity, exposing a divide among European Union and NATO member states over U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Israel, Canada, Panama, the Czech Republic and four tiny Pacific island states were the only ones in the 193-member U.N. General Assembly siding with the U.S. in its quixotic vote against the Palestinian Authority’s request for nonmember observer state status. France, Italy, Spain, Norway, Denmark and Turkey were among the U.S. allies joining the majority in the 138-9 vote, with 41 abstentions.

The divide, though, may be more an expression of frustration with the stalled peace process than evidence of divergent views among the allies on how the 65-year-old conflict over territory and sovereignty should be resolved between the Arab and Jewish people. The United States and its allies share the objective of a two-state solution, differing more on procedural strategy for getting the two sides back to the negotiating table, Middle East experts say.

Coming on the heels of this month’s Israeli-Gaza conflict, the vote conferring de facto recognition of Palestine as a state highlighted growing impatience in much of the developed world with Israel’s building of settlements in disputed territory and its use of force against the enclaves. The Israeli offensive launched in mid-November in retaliation for Hamas militants’ firing rockets into southern Israel killed more than 160 Palestinians, most of them civilians. Six Israelis died in the weeklong exchange of fire.

Whether the rift between the United States and its allies will hamper their collective efforts to resolve other conflicts and security challenges will probably depend on whether elevated status emboldens the Palestinians to hold a rigid line on resuming peace talks. It also remains unclear whether Israel will follow through on threats to retaliate by withholding development funds or stepping up settlement construction.

The split over Palestine could prove a fleeting instance of friends agreeing to disagree, analysts and diplomats say.

“We have so many more substantial matters in front of us that this will be seen as a little bump in the road, particularly as regards Syria and Iran,” said Leonard Spector, a senior security analyst with the Monterey Institute of International Studies. “The vote will be an irritant in certain settings but not on the bigger-picture stuff. … When you see solidarity around the security cluster of activities, that suggests this Palestinian vote is not going to lead to serious deterioration of intra-NATO relations.”

European allies that defected from the U.S. side on the Palestinian status question remain united in their resolve to empower a credible successor government to replace that of Syrian President Bashar Assad, said Spector. They also speak and act with common purpose in trying to contain Iran’s nuclear ambitions, with the European states actually getting out ahead of U.S. sanctions with a new ban on natural gas trade with the Islamic Republic, he added.

France, the leading voice in recognizing a new Syrian rebel alliance as the legitimate representative of the embattled Syrian people, was also the first U.S. ally in Europe to signal its intention to vote in favor of Palestine’s elevated status. As a nonmember observer state, instead of an “entity,” Palestine will be on a diplomatic par with the Vatican and eligible for membership in U.N. institutions. Much of the pressure brought by the United States and Israel for rejection of the status change arose out of concern that the Palestinians would now seek to join the International Criminal Court in The Hague and lobby for war crimes charges to be brought against Israel.

“We hope that the vote will serve to restart the peace process and not have the opposite effect,” said Francois Delattre, French ambassador to the United States, in an interview with The Times. He cast the status vote as “a mostly symbolic thing” that doesn’t change the strongly shared views that peace can be achieved in the region only through a two-state solution.

Delattre also argued that the vote “put our weight on the moderate side,” strengthening the position of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas against the rival Hamas leadership in the Gaza Strip that the United States and Israel consider a terrorist organization. Abbas was sidelined during Egyptian-brokered cease-fire talks between Israel and Hamas, undermining his authority as leader of the Palestinian people.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton reiterated U.S. concerns after the vote, warning that it placed “new obstacles in the path of peace.” Ahead of the vote, Republican Sen. Orrin Hatch proposed eliminating funding for the General Assembly if it approved the Palestinian status change.

In a telephone interview from Ramallah, West Bank, senior Palestinian Authority member Hanan Ashrawi hailed the vote as “a game-changer” that bestowed the protections of international law on Palestinians and would hold Israel accountable if it thwarted resumption of the peace process.

She also expressed the hope that the United States and Israel would refrain from imposing the “collective punitive measures” threatened in their efforts to deter the status vote.

“My advice to them,” she said, “is that if you can’t do any good, at least don’t do any harm.”


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A foreign correspondent for 25 years, Carol J. Williams traveled to and reported from more than 80 countries in Europe, Asia, the Middle East and Latin America.