The Battle for Europe

Some believe UN recognition of a Palestinian state could save the peace process by setting the parameters for viable state-to-state negotiations on a final peace treaty.

June 15, 2011 13:38
Tel Aviv Rally June 4th

Tel Aviv Rally June 4th. (photo credit: DIMA VAZINOVICH/FLASH 90)

IN THE RUN-UP TO THE ANTICIPATED UN recognition of Palestinian statehood in September , Israeli diplomacy is focused as never before on Europe. Having given up any hope of defeating a General Assembly Resolution on Palestine, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’ s strategy is to dilute its significance.

The aim is to get as many democracies as possible to vote against and to create what Israeli diplomats are calling a “moral minority .”

T o this end Europe, with 27 democracies in the EU and another 17 on the periphery , is crucial.

“There is no possible configuration in which Israel wins the vote,” a senior aide to the prime minister tells The Report. “But if we have a situation like we did after the UN Human Rights Council’ s Goldstone Report on the IDF’ s Gaza operation, we will be able to say a majority of democratic countries refused to support a one-sided resolution.

And if we can get that ‘moral minority ,’ then the resolution will be reduced to nothing more than another UN anti-Israel piece of paper .”

The campaign to win the European vote is being led by Netanyahu himself. Since early April, he has been to Berlin, Prague, Paris, London and Rome, and is now planning further visits to Sofia, Bucharest, W arsaw and Budapest. His message to the Europeans has been blunt: a hardline UN resolution enshrining the 1967 borders, he warns, will kill the peace process.

His argument is that no Palestinian leader will then be able to accept anything less – even though everyone knows, and the Palestinians themselves have already agreed, that, in any feasible peace treaty , the 1967 lines will have to be changed. “It will have the same ef fect as the 1948 UN General Assembly Resolution 194 had on the refugee issue,” the Netanyahu aide insists. “Everyone understands that in a peace treaty Palestinian refugees will return to Palestine not to Israel. But because of 194 you have a situation in which no Palestinian leader is ready to say so in public.”

In contrast to Netanyahu, however , there are those who believe UN recognition of a Palestinian state is the only way to save the peace process.

They argue that it could set the parameters for viable state-to-state negotiations on a final peace treaty .

They also maintain that it could be a life-saver for Israel, creating an opening for the two-state solution it needs to secure the Zionist project of a Jewish and democratic state, and avoiding the slide towards further delegitimization and isolation it might otherwise face.

Where these left-wingers and the government agree is that the key to the diplomatic outcome in September lies in Europe.

While Netanyahu is investing huge amounts of diplomatic ener gy to persuade European governments to vote against Palestinian statehood, a small but prestigious group of left-wing intellectuals, academics, writers, civil servants, ex-politicians and former diplomats is ur ging the Europeans to do precisely the opposite. In late May , they published an open letter and accompanying press release calling on European leaders to recognize Palestinian statehood in September and they followed up by sending copies of the letter to European ambassadors in Israel.

THE REASON THE SMALL GROUP is making waves is because of the caliber of the people involved and the desperation inherent in the move.

Among the signatories are former Knesset speaker A vrum Bur g; former attorney general Michael BenY air; former Civil Service commissioner Y itzhak Galnoor; former Foreign Ministry director general Alon Liel; former ambassador to South Africa Ilan Baruch; Nobel Prize-winning economist Daniel Kahneman; Israel Prize-winning economist Menachem Y a’ari, a former president of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities; Israel prize-winning philosophers A vishai Mar galit and Y irmiyahu Y ovel; Moshe Halbertal coauthor of the IDF ethical code; and novelists Lea Aini, Iris Leal, Nir Baram and Ronit Matalon.

All stand to take flack from the Israeli public for ostensibly supporting Palestinian goals and appealing to outsiders to help undermine the policies of the elected government.

Complicating matters further is the fact that some of the Europeans are flexing their newfound diplomatic muscle.

Aware of Israel’ s concern over the European vote, the French have been pressuring Netanyahu to go along with a plan to renew Israeli-Palestinian peace talks or face the prospect of France and other key European players voting with the Palestinians in September .

The left-wingers’ letter was published in the French daily “Le Monde” a few days after what the authors call Netanyahu’ s “horror show” in the US Congress in late May .

They ar gue that in his speech to the American lawmakers, the prime minister ef fectively cut of f any chance of further peace negotiations and they accuse him of sustaining a hollow semblance of a peace process as a diversionary tactic to maintain the status quo.

Unless something happens to break the deadlock, there will be a further outbreak of violence that could spill over into Europe too, they warn. In their view , the one practical step that could fundamentally change things is international recognition of Palestinian statehood. “In the face of endless procrastination and mutual distrust, a declaration of Palestinian independence is not only legitimate, but also a positive and constructive step for the benefit of the two nations,” their letter states.

Alon Liel, the former Foreign Ministry director general and one of the more active members of the group, says he has already spoken to approximately one-third of the European ambassadors in Israel, mostly at their initiative. He ar gues that the current Israeli and Palestinian leaderships are incapable of delivering an agreement on their own: The Israeli government has shifted its positions too far to the right and the Palestinians are “in bed” with Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel. “The parties have ef fectively outsourced the conflict.

And because the Americans have proved so inept, Europe has become the key ,” he tells The Report .

According to Liel, there are three distinct blocs in Europe on the recognition issue: The northern bloc, mainly the Scandinavian countries, which will vote for a Palestinian state come what may; the eastern bloc, emer ging eastern European democracies that are set to vote against; and the influential western European bloc which is still undecided. “This is the group that could push others into voting for , against or abstaining.

They are the ones who will decide the outcome,” he opines.

In Liel’ s view , widely-backed UN recognition of a Palestinian state will serve Israel’ s interests because it will make clear where the international community stands on the twostate model Israel needs for its long-term survival. It will also send a message to both parties that they cannot go on behaving irrationally in defiance of the entire international community .

Equally important, it will serve as a wakeup call for the Israeli public. “They need to understand that the government’ s policy of trying to get everything – united Jerusalem, a military presence along the Jordan River , Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, the settlements blocs and more – will not work. Only a sharp signal from the international community is likely to drive this home,” he insists.

One of the main ar guments against UN recognition of a Palestinian state, made also on the wider Israeli left, is that it will lead to heavy international pressure on Israel to withdraw to the 1967 lines, without Israeli input, first on borders and security , and then on Jerusalem and refugees. Liel, however , is unfazed: “I hope that if there is such pressure on Israel, it will agree to negotiate, bring in the US, and together reach a more realistic formula as far as Israel is concerned,” he asserts.

SURPRISINGLY, HIS ARGUMENTS echo a growing strain of centrist thinking dubbed “coordinated unilateralism.”

Unilateralists like Haifa University’ s Dan Schueftan and Reut think-tank president Gidi Grinstein ar gue that, given the current leaderships on both sides, a negotiated settlement is impossible, and the only way forward is through coordinated unilateral moves.

In Grinstein’s view, that is precisely what the UN recognition of a Palestinian state ought to be and, in a late May article in “Haaretz,” he argued that if it is treated as such, the benefits for Israel could be substantial: It would anchor the principle of two states for two peoples; leave Israel control ling security assets in and around the new state; shape the contours of a permanent solution and diminish the refugee problem.

Instead of opposing Palestinian statehood in September , the Americans should facilitate it in a way that “conforms to Israel’ s needs,” Grinstein wrote.

Where Liel’ s left-wing group receives virtually no mainstream support is in its appeal for outside help against the government of the day . Ilan Baruch, like Liel a former ambassador to South Africa, ar gues that they were left with little choice. His basic assumption is that unless there is a diplomatic breakthrough soon, Israel is heading for a completely gratuitous round of violence, which would be a direct consequence of the government’ s inflexibility .

And since the Kadimaled parliamentary opposition is far too weak to force a change in course, there is a crying need for extra-parliamentary activity and outside help to produce what Baruch calls “the Archimedean lever” that could set a genuine negotiating process in train.

Baruch resigned from the Foreign Ministry in March insisting that he could no longer “honestly represent” the government because of its failure to recognize that the perception of Israel as an occupying power is leading to its isolation as a pariah state.

Baruch notes that, unlike all his immediate predecessors, Netanyahu studiously avoids using the word “occupation.” “In his speech to Congress he used the phrase ‘parts of the national homeland’ and specifically said we are not occupiers. That is more than a semantic dif ference. It reflects a different world view,” he asserts.

To prevent what he sees as the dire consequences of this approach, Baruch insists that people who care deeply about Israel’ s future have every right to appeal for outside help. Moreover , he maintains, the Israeli right has no compunction about using foreign players – American evangelists and rich American Jews like Irving Moskowitz or Sheldon Adelson – to achieve its political goals, and that to ar gue that the left shouldn’ t approach the international community is to apply a double standard.

Baruch, who lost an eye in the 1968-1970 war of attrition, insists that the left-wingers are acting out of profound Zionist motives in what they believe are the state’s best interests. “Netanyahu and I were both born in Jerusalem in 1949. We are both Israeli patriots. I was wounded in battle and have given as much of myself to the country as he has,” he declares.

The demonstrative left-wing actions in favor of Palestinian statehood began in April, when a group, including 17 Israel Prize winners, publicly endorsed a petition calling for Palestinian independence outside the T el A viv hall where David Ben-Gurion had proclaimed Israel’ s independence in May 1948.

Then, on the eve of Netanyahu’ s W ashington visit in May , many of the same people were part of a lar ger group of 90 Israelis, now including 18 retired generals, 27 Israel Prize laureates, five former senior diplomats and five current or former university presidents, who, backed by the dovish American J Street, signed a full page ad in “The New Y o rk T imes” calling on “any person seeking peace and liberty and upon all nations to join us in welcoming the Palestinian Declaration of Independence and to support the ef forts of the citizens of the two states to maintain peaceful relations on the basis of secure borders and good neighborliness.”

Ten days later, after what they saw as Netanyahu’ s disappointing speech in Congress, 21 members of the group, many of them Jerusalem-based supporters of the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement, published the appeal to the Europeans.

That was followed up by a mass rally of the much wider politically or ganized left in early June, with an estimated 10,000 marching from Rabin Square to the T el A viv Museum in support of a Palestinian state. Participating groups included the “Derech” faction in Kadima, the Labor , Meretz, Hadash and Ra’am-T a’al parties, Combatants for Peace, the Sheikh Jarrah Solidarity Movement and Gush Shalom.

Marchers carried banners reading: “Palestinian state – an Israeli interest.”

B UT OPINION ON THE LEFT OVER the potential benefit for Israel of a UN vote in favor of Palestinian statehood is sharply divided. Many who disagree with the former diplomats and Israel Prize winners ar gue that it is more likely to hurt Israel internationally than to break the political deadlock.

“It could lead to diplomatic isolation, international intervention in the conflict both on the diplomatic and the legal levels. It worries me a great deal.

And I don’ t even want to think about hundreds of thousands of Palestinians taking a cue from events in the Arab world and marching inside Israel,” Meretz’ s Zahava Gal-On, one of the main speakers at the rally, tells The Report .

Gal-On says the aim of the rally was to put pressure on Netanyahu to accept a Palestinian state and enter negotiations on its parameters before the issue reaches the UN. She also opposes the approach to the Europeans. “I don’t want to criticize initiatives or actions of others. But the arena for our activities is within Israeli society. And I see my role as putting public pressure on the Israeli government to recognize a Palestinian state,” she declares.

During a visit to Israel and the West Bank in early June, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe outlined his plan for restarting the stalled peace process.

There would be a peace conference in Paris to mark a resumption of negotiations on the establishment of two states for two peoples on the basis of the 1967 lines with land swaps; borders and security would be discussed first, Jerusalem and refugees later , with the aim of achieving a full-fledged permanent peace deal in a year; in the interim, neither side would take unilateral steps – the Palestinians would not go to the UN in September and Israel would not build in the settlements.

The tacit French message to Israel was: Support our package or we might vote for Palestinian statehood in September .

The French ideas are not very dif ferent from those outlined by US President Barack Obama and the Americans prefer to keep control of the process themselves. So when Juppe went to W ashington to present his plan, US Secretary of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was less than enthusiastic.

Instead, the Americans are consulting with both parties in an attempt to come up with a package of their own that will convince the Palestinians to drop their UN gambit, or , at the very least, elicit enough Israeli goodwill to persuade the French and other key European players to vote against Palestinian statehood in September . However , American of ficials complain that Netanyahu is giving them virtually nothing to go on and their Israeli counterparts confirm that the chances of restarting peace talks before September are slim. “As long as Hamas is part of the Palestinian government, we are not going to see a restart to the peace process,” the Netanyahu aide tells The Report.

The end result could be a collapse of Netanyahu’ s European strategy , with France and Britain leading a sizable European vote for Palestinian statehood in September .

The question then will be whether that forces serious state-to-state negotiations as some of the left-wingers hope, or whether it accelerates a process of international isolation for Israel, accompanied by mass protests and possible violence, as others fear .

The consequences for Israel and the Palestinians could be historic.

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