Middle East

Palestinians head for UN state showdown

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tours Israel's border with Egypt, in southern Israel (13 Sept 2011)
Image caption Israel has seen the political landscape rapidly transform around it

Not for the first time this year, Israel finds itself a nervous spectator as tumultuous events in the region around it rapidly change the shape and nature of the Middle East.

The domino-like fall of authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, not forgetting the violent turmoil in Syria, caught almost everyone by surprise and, arguably, left Israeli politicians floundering for a coherent policy response.

The Israeli government was criticised in many quarters for its lukewarm response to the Arab Spring - concerns about regional security and the rise of Islamic political parties were perhaps seen as more important than expanding political pluralism in the Middle East.

Justifiable criticism or not, those were events almost exclusively beyond Israeli control and over which it could ultimately have had little or no influence.

The thorny issue of recognition for a Palestinian state is different story.

The right-wing coalition government led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made it abundantly clear that it opposes "unilateral" Palestinian moves towards statehood, either as a full member of the UN, via the Security Council, or for "Enhanced Observer Member" status, via a majority vote in the General Assembly.

Israel says either option seriously undermines negotiations towards a two-state solution - Israeli and Palestinian states existing side by side - saying that such a course of action will not lead to peace or the establishment of a Palestinian state.

There have also been threats, from Israel's Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman and his deputy Danny Ayalon, that if the Palestinians go to the UN, Israel would consider changing the status of east Jerusalem and the West Bank settlements.

"If the Palestinians independently take blunt unilateral steps to declare statehood, then all [previous] agreements are nullified," said Mr Ayalon on his Twitter account earlier this week.

Warnings and threats aside, Israel stands accused of doing little to offer the Palestinians a constructive and viable alternative.

The airport limousine services and VIP security details must have been stretched to their limits as a succession of senior US and European diplomats shuttled between Cairo, Jerusalem and Ramallah this week.

The goal of Tony Blair, Catherine Ashton, Dennis Ross and David Hale to extract some genuine concession or initiative from the Israelis that would persuade the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, to drop his bid for statehood at the UN and to return to peace talks.

There has been considerable international pressure on the Palestinian side, too, to refrain from the UN option but the Palestinians are confident momentum - and much of the world - is on their side.

Israel's long-established position is that there can be no "pre-conditions" to the resumption of talks and refuses to countenance suggestions that it should stop building in illegal settlements on occupied Palestinian land or offer any other concession to Mr Abbas.

Time 'running out'

There has been much analysis in Israel that, as consistent and firm as the position of Mr Netanyahu is, it only serves to increase the country's isolation at a time when Israel is losing friends and supporters in the region.

Image caption The US believes Palestinian statehood should only come through peace talks

Recent difficulties with Egypt and Turkey aside, many Israelis feel their government is being out-manoeuvred by the Palestinian UN initiative and is not coming up with a credible, coherent response.

Israel knows the United States will use its veto in the Security Council to oppose the declaration of a Palestinian state, should it come to that.

And while it will back its strongest ally in the region, Washington would rather not have to use that veto because of the message it would convey in the wider Arab world.

US President Barack Obama has, after all, declared his wish to see the Palestinian flag flying at the UN, albeit as a consequence of successful peace talks with Israel.

That is why, on this occasion, Europe is arguably a more important player than the United States.

If a majority of EU countries - especially the French, Germans and British - support Palestinian recognition at the UN that could make life very uncomfortable for Israel.

The position of European governments is not yet clear - that is what the diplomats are busy finalising this week - but recent polls in Europe suggest their populations strongly support the idea of Palestinian membership at the UN.

Israel's diplomats around the world have been busy too, putting forward arguments against Palestinian upgrading or full recognition at the UN.

An aide to Prime Minister Netanyahu this week told the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper: "Israel is not isolated... we should stop the self-flagellation as if we were to blame for everything."

But many senior Israelis are convinced that a return to negotiations with the Palestinians will allay tensions, not only in the West Bank, Jerusalem and Israel but in the region as a whole.

With time running out, what might be required now is a gesture from Israel that can make that a reality and avoid a showdown in New York next week.

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