European Affairs

The process of deliberation which will now ensue, mainly out of the public eye, will provide the European nations with an opportunity to smooth down the jagged edges which have emerged in their relations with each other as a result of the Palestinian initiative, to try and formulate some joint approach to the issue of Palestinian independence and to clarify what they see as the confused, and confusing, role of the United States in dealing with the most intransigent of all Middle East problems, the Israel-Palestinian peace process. (See earlier European Affairs for background on this issue)

The inability of the Europeans to agree on a joint approach to the Palestinian issue at the UN is hardly surprising: it is an ever-challenging process to try aligning 27 countries' national interests on contentious international concerns, with the Middle East one of the toughest.

Vivien Pertusot, the head of the Brussels office of the French Institute of International Relations, has been widely quoted as dividing the Europeans into four camps: Spain, Sweden and Luxembourg favouring the Palestinian bid for statehood; Germany, Italy and Czech Republic against; Britain and France uncertain; with the rest comprising the "don't knows." Other commentators have added Ireland and Belgium to those favoring the statehood move, with the Netherlands and Poland in the opposing camp.

Further complicating a united European stance is the fact that within each of the individual EU member countries there are differences over the right approach. German newspapers reported that Christoph Heusgen, foreign policy adviser to Chancellor Angela Merkel, was "unhappy" with her statement to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in the spring that recognition of an independent Palestine other than by way of negotiation would not contribute to a peaceful solution. In this she seemed to side with Israel and the United States and threatened, in the eyes of the Berlin foreign ministry, to isolate Germany in Europe.

Pulled this way and that in the inter-European turmoil, the EU foreign policy chief, the British Baroness Ashton, struggled for months to create some kind of consensual European view to present to the Quartet, the group charged with mediating the Israel-Arab peace process and consisting of the UN, the U.S., Europe and Russia.

For months the EU tumbled through hoops of speeches, paperwork and committees, all the while pressing the Palestinians not to proceed with their UN bid but to return to the conference table, where the EU promised to keep their concerns to the fore in any negotiation.

Their formula, adopted by the Quartet, did little more than set out a timetable for negotiations, a promise of ongoing meetings and (a nod to the Russians) a conference in Moscow when there seemed to be some progress. They stopped short of trotting out another proposal they had considered several times but whose terms they could not agree: to offer to support the Palestinians in the General Assembly if they opted for the lesser status of "observer," akin to that enjoyed by the Vatican.

But any pretense of European or Quartet unity was blown apart by France's President Sarkozy who, boldly proposing the idea as if it were his own, suggested to the UN General Assembly a timetable for Israel-Arab negotiations and an offer to the Palestinians of the "elevated" (his foreign minister's word) status of a United Nations observer state.  Diplomats were taken aback by the suggestion since Sarkozy had reportedly made it directly to President Abbas in February when it had been soundly rejected.

London was furious. Only the day previous to this offer Foreign Secretary William Hague had indicated EU governments not to show their hand on seating the Palestinians at the UN in order to exert the maximum pressure on both sides to return to negotiations. Sarkozy himself had told a conference of French ambassadors that it was important the EU spoke with once voice "and that together we will assume our responsibilities."

This has become the new shorthand for a growing European belief that, with the U.S. President wedded to his promise to veto a Palestinian bid for full UN membership, with Congress threatening to cut off aid to the Palestine Authority should it persist in seeking independent status at the UN without negotiation with Israel and with White House concerns about his re-election prospects, the responsibility now falls on Europe to move Israel and the Palestinians towards a negotiated settlement.

Some Europeans, not least the Germans and the British, are concerned about the downside of seeing the U.S., long the biggest external player in the Middle East, withdraw, under the pressure of domestic events, from its role as peace-maker between Israel and the Palestinians. Morwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan, seemed to sum it up for the pro-American alliance within Europe when he wrote: "The parameters of a two-state solution are known to all. It would be a mistake to think that we need to reinvent the wheel. On their own, the parties will not reach a solution anytime soon. Without the active involvement of the United States, a solution will not be found..."

There are few in Europe today - whatever their attitude about U.S. international involvements - who would not echo that view.

Geoff Paul is the former editor of The Jewish Chronicle in London