Plan B on Palestine at the UN? Europeans mull alternative resolution

As President Barack Obama prepares to address the United Nations later this month, a painful diplomatic failure of his administration looms: last year, speaking to the same UN General Assembly opening session, Obama voiced the hope that US-led diplomatic efforts would help achieve a negotiated agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians that would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state this fall.

"Each of us must choose the path of peace," Obama told world diplomats gathered in New York last September. "If we do, when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel."

As that deadline fast approaches, however -- Obama is set to address the UN General Assembly on September 20th, the White House said Thursday--the vision seems further away from reality than ever. Israelis and Palestinians have not even been at the negotiating table for eleven months. Meantime, the Arab spring uprisings have re-scrambled the political order of the Arab world, toppling early on a key Arab pillar of the peace process, Egypt's Hosni Mubarak.

Amid the ongoing tumult, Israelis have grown increasingly risk averse about their restive neighborhood. Meantime, the Palestinians, having lost confidence in Washington's peacemaking abilities, have vowed to go to the United Nations and seek unilateral statehood recognition this month, bypassing a negotiated agreement with Israel, against the strenuous objections of Washington and Israel.

Watching it all with growing unease are the Europeans, who have generally been relegated to a backseat role by Washington on Mideast peacemaking. But now, some diplomatic observers suggest that the Europeans may offer a way to avert a potential disaster on the issue: by introducing an alternative UN resolution that would recognize both Israel and a Palestinian state, living side by side, in peace, and calling for renewed negotiations.

Such diplomatic discussions are in their early stages and sensitive, given several factors. Among them: the Europeans have not yet arrived at a unified position on the issue among their 27-nation bloc; Palestinian plans are still in disarray; and because the Obama administration's public position--reflecting Jerusalem's--remains to adamantly reject that any sort of Palestinian statehood resolution should proceed at the United Nations at all.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy went public this week with his discomfort at European divisions on the matter, and voiced growing conviction that Washington is unable to lead Mideast peacemaking efforts on its own:

"The 27 countries of the European Union must express themselves with one voice," Sarkozy said in a speech Wednesday to French ambassadors, Reuters reported. "The role of the U.S. is uncontested and irreplaceable, but everybody sees that it is not enough. We have to widen the circle of negotiation, think of the role and pertinence of the quartet."

European nation foreign ministry lawyers are studying language that might be used in an alternative resolution on Palestinian statehood, a European diplomat told the Envoy Thursday on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic discussions.

"I know lawyers are looking at how to make this acceptable for everyone," the diplomat said. "The matter for us is, if we want to have leverage, we have to be united. That affects how far you can go in drafting something. It's important when the text is negotiated, that it would call for both sides to agree" on the terms for establishing two states.

The diplomat suggested that UK foreign office lawyers in London may be taking the lead in drafting alternative resolution language, although the diplomat stressed that the work was still in its early stages and there had not been a policy decision on whether to introduce it.

U.S. diplomats declined to discuss the matter, describing any European alternative resolution planning as "vague talk" and "chatter."

"As we move closer to the middle of September, we are very much aware of the situation and we're talking with our close allies and partners about it," State Department spokesman Mark Toner told journalists at the State Department Thursday when asked about the looming Palestinian UN September bid. "Our position couldn't be clearer publicly or privately."

Despite the administration's uncomfortable reticence on the matter, some Washington Middle East analysts in consultation with the administration said an alternative resolution may be the least bad of several potential outcomes.

"I think it's the best bet and the main hope for avoiding some kind of confrontation that would be very detrimental to all parties," said Hussein Ibish, a Middle East analyst with the American Task Force for Palestine, in an interview with the Envoy Friday. "If the Europeans can craft language with the Palestinians" for an alternative resolution, he continued, it might help provide a "soft landing, so that whatever happens in September, funding is not cut for Palestinian state-building and Israeli-Palestinian security coordination."

"A soft landing depends on the perception of [Palestinian] quality of life the day after whatever happens," Ibish added.

Even some Israeli lawmakers suggest an alternative European resolution on the matter might be helpful if the Palestinians can't be persuaded to abandon their UN bid.

"It could be a good idea if it helps the Palestinian leadership find some alternative wording … that does not mention specific borders and calls upon the sides [to go into] direction negotiations," said Israeli Knesset member Einat Wilf, in an interview with the Envoy Tuesday.

But Wilf rejected the Palestinians' UN gambit for trying to "draw the international community deeper into the conflict," she added.

"An alternative resolution may be attractive, if it calls for the basic parameters for negotiations, and doesn't foreclose negotiations," said Scott Lasensky, a Middle East expert at the U.S. Institute of Peace, in an interview with the Envoy Thursday.

"As time goes on, [the Palestinian UN matter] looks increasingly like a sideshow," Lasensky added. "Other events in the region"--Syrian unrest, the overthrow of Moammar Gadhafi in Libya, the increased terrorist threat to southern Israel coming via Egypt's Sinai and Egypt's upcoming elections-- "increasingly command attention. The showdown at the UN may turn out be anticlimactic."