By Philip Stephens
The Palestinians are seeking affirmation of statehood at the UN. Good friends of Israel will support them in the endeavour. The Middle East has been upended by the Arab spring. Israel cannot pretend nothing has changed. If it wants to safeguard its security it has to adjust.
The prospect of a vote on Palestinian statehood at this month’s meeting of the UN General Assembly has thrown western governments into something of a panic. A procession of US officials has been despatched to Ramallah to persuade Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, to take a step back. They have been joined in recent days by Tony Blair, the representative of the so-called Quartet of the UN, US, European Union and Russia.
European governments are sympathetic, albeit to slightly varying degrees, with the frustrations of Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. Build the institutions of statehood, the Palestinian leadership was told by the international community a couple of years back. It has been doing just that. The trouble is – and you hear this said from London to Berlin to Washington and all points in between – Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu has frustrated at every turn the US-led effort to revive a peace process.
That said, the Europeans fear a UN vote on statehood would test their unity – not something they want to contemplate after the scars left by intervention in Libya. Some worry about a rupture with the US. Washington is ready to wield its veto if the Palestinian bid reaches the UN Security Council.
Important as such considerations seem to US and European diplomats, it is hard to see why Palestinians should be overly impressed by political machinations in the west. The vast majority of UN members are ready to swing behind the claim to statehood. Everyone knows that Barack Obama’s threatened veto has more to do with a hostile Congress and with the president’s re-election campaign than with considerations of justice or statecraft.
Mr Blair has told Mr Abbas that if the Palestinians settle for a statement of principles from the Quartet in place of a UN vote, Mr Netanyahu will open serious negotiations. Given the Israeli prime minister’s record in these matters, and his aggressive expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, the Palestinians cannot take such promises seriously.
The Arab uprisings may be redrawing the geopolitical map of the region, but Mr Netanyahu has kept his head firmly in the sand. He has launched a ferocious – I have heard one European foreign minister call it “menacing” – campaign against Mr Abbas’s diplomatic gambit.
The Israeli government is combining the threat of economic sanctions against West Bank Palestinians with warnings of violent unrest if Mr Abbas wins the UN argument. Mr Netanyahu must know he is playing with fire: in this part of the world incendiary language has a habit of becoming self-fulfilling.
In any event, the Palestinians’ carefully-crafted case for statehood asks for essentially what has been long promised by the international community and, incidentally, by past Israeli governments: a two-state solution based around 1967 borders and a shared capital in Jerusalem. Unless I am mistaken, this is the long-held stance of the Quartet, as well as of the European Union and of Mr Obama’s administration.
Israel, of course, has fundamental concerns – notably about security and about the status of Palestinian refugees. Any declaration of Palestine statehood must be framed in the context of absolute guarantees of Israel’s future. The irony is that such legitimate worries are lost to the anger and frustration generated by Mr Netanyahu’s intransigence.
For all its prime minister’s bombast, Israel has rarely looked so beleaguered. Mr Netanyahu’s premiership has drained Israel of what the American scholar Joseph Nye has called “soft power”. Israel has lost its capacity to carry its argument by persuasion and example. Its prime minister has seemed to relish his isolation.
The Arab uprisings have toppled important pillars of Israel’s strategic security. As last weekend’s violent attacks on its embassy in Cairo attested, Israel can no longer depend on Egypt. The turmoil in Syria threatens instability to the north. just as Hamas in Gaza stirs violence in the south.
Mr Netanyahu, of course, has no control over upheavals in the Arab world, but this is surely not the time to make enemies of friends. In Europe, he has broken the patience even of Germany’s Angela Merkel. William Hague, a lifelong friend of Israel and Britain’s foreign secretary, does little to hide his exasperation. Mr Netanyahu’s relationship with Mr Obama runs along a spectrum from sour to abysmal.
This week’s visit to Cairo of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan spoke to Mr Netanyahu’s reckless disregard of old alliances. Not so long ago, Turkey was counted a reliable friend. Bilateral co-operation spanned economics, diplomacy and defence. Since Israel’s attack on the Gaza flotilla, relations have gone from chill to freeze.
Mr Erdogan is not an innocent in this. He has played politics with the issue to assert Turkish leadership in the Middle East. His latest comments were ill-judged in place and timing. Mr Netanyahu has, however, spurned US efforts to broker a rapprochement. It was too much, it seems, to issue even a mild expression of Israeli regret at the death of Turkish citizens in the flotilla.
Israel’s isolation will be on uncomfortable display at the UN General Assembly. The diplomatic compromise now under discussion is one that would see the Palestinians admitted as an observer state, with a status comparable to that of the Vatican. There is no reason for Mr Abbas to accept anything less.
Ehud Olmert, Mr Netanyahu’s predecessor, was no soft touch. But he reached the intelligent conclusion that winning wars against Israel’s neighbours was not enough. Real security demanded peace with the Palestinians; and peace demanded a Palestinian state. Mr Olmert’s offer came too late in his premiership. The only thing to have changed since is that the imperative of peace has become more urgent. The pro-Israel position is Palestinian statehood.
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