Recognising Palestine


PALESTINIAN PRESIDENT Mahmoud Abbas is, understandably, playing his cards close to his chest. As EU, US and other diplomats beat a path to his door in a bid to shake him from his demand for a UN vote within weeks on full Palestinian membership, Mr Abbas is weighing the unpalatable alternatives – moral victory in diplomatic defeat, or a partial advance, a pyrrhic victory on the back of vague promises it may lead to the real prize, meaningful negotiations with Israel.

Either way Abbas will seriously alienate important constituencies.The alternatives are, on the one hand, to press the demand for full UN membership, seen by many as overdue de facto recognition of a Palestinian state based notionally on the 1967 borders – and in doing so, face a certain US veto in the Security Council. On the other, he can sidestep the council by pressing only for “non-member state” status, like the Vatican, which only requires General Assembly approval, a vote he can easily win.

Although the Palestinians would still not get a vote they would get access to a number of UN bodies, like the International Criminal Court, a prospect that fills the Israelis and their loyal US ally with dread. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu argues that the recognition would also pre-empt the outcome of final status talks – currently in abeyance because of Israeli stonewalling – and would “delegitimise” the Israeli state. He has launched a ferocious diplomatic offensive against the initiative, threatening dire consequences for the Palestinians should the UN adopt either course.

In the face of such Israeli bullying, Tony Blair as representative of the Quartet – the EU, the UN, the US and Russia – and the EU’s foreign policy chief, Baroness Cathy Ashton, are reported to be urging a third option on Abbas involving no change of status, but a General Assembly declaration of principles that should guide talks. If he accepts such a course, Blair is reported to have promised Abbas that Netanyahu will open meannigful talks. Such promises, however, are a seriously debased currency, and Abbas is rightly most unlikely to bite – to do so would also be to invite huge disaffection among his own people.

EU pressure on Abbas to compromise and to accept at most the “Vatican” option is in part a reflection of a desire to conceal the reality of serious divisions among member states on the issue. Irish silence to date, beyond a de rigueur expression of support for the principle of the establishment of a Palestinian state, has been driven both by wanting to preserve room for manoeuvre until the Palestinian position is made clear, and a strong preference for a joint EU position. Too often, however, a common European foreign policy, prisoner of the unanimity rule, remains at best a lowest common denominator stance, at worst a statement of vacuous banality.

But when Abbas reveals his hand with a specific resolution, Ireland should not be among the many likely EU abstainers. It must come off the fence to vote for an enhanced recognition of Palestine.