Why did the Czechs, Palau and half-a-dozen others stand with Israel in the vote on ‘Palestine’?

Along with the US, Canada, Panama and the Czech Republic, four tiny Pacific island nations — with a combined population that’s less than that of Petah Tikva — spared Israel still greater ignominy last Thursday. Could it be that they simply like us?

Raphael Ahren is the diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN General Assembly on Thursday, November 29, 2012 (courtesy MFA)
PA President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the UN General Assembly on Thursday, November 29, 2012 (courtesy MFA)

The fact that the overwhelming majority of nations voted on Thursday in favor of a resolution granting the Palestinians nonmember observer state status at the United Nations General Assembly was widely and accurately seen as proof of Israel’s international isolation — on the issue, at least. Still, there were eight countries that voted with Israel in the 138-9 diplomatic drubbing (with 41 abstentions).

Who are these nations that dared to oppose China, France, Italy, Russia, Japan, Switzerland and 132 other nations? And why did they back the lost cause?

Washington and Ottawa are Israel’s staunchest supporters in the international arena, so the no votes from the US and Canada came as no surprise. But they were joined by Panama and the Czech Republic, as well as four countries most people would have difficulty finding on a map: the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia, Nauru and Palau.

These four remote island nations, combined, have a population of about 205,000; that’s a bit less than the population of Petah Tikva. But in the UN General Assembly, every vote is equal, whether it belongs to China or to a 459-square-kilometer group of islands in the North Pacific Ocean, such as Palau.

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The Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau have a long history of voting similarly to the US. In 2010, for example, Micronesia echoed Washington’s vote at the US 47 times and only contradicted it three times. Palau followed the US lead in 96.5% of all votes.

Some observers suggest that “checkbook diplomacy” is at work here, and that Israel or the US bought the tiny island states’ votes for cash.

The Marshall Islands and Micronesia are states “in free association” with the US and are set to receive $3.5 billion from Washington in the next 10 years, the International Business Times reported last week. “Palau is also in free association with the US, having received $18 million annually from the US until 2009.”

Checkbook diplomacy certainly exists — in 2008, Nauru received $10 million from Russia for voting in favor of the breakaway nation of Abkhazia — but Israeli officials denied it was at play during Thursday’s vote.

“We don’t have money to pour on the other states for their votes,” a diplomatic official told The Times of Israel on Sunday. Neither Jerusalem nor Washington put “a single cent or even half a cent on the table” in exchange for a pro-Israel vote, the official said.

It was actually the other side that bought pro-Palestine votes, this official claimed, hinting that “some Gulf states” paid for the support of “a few poor Pacific states and governments in Africa.”

Guatemala, meanwhile, gave Israel a “solemn promise” to vote against the Palestinian resolution, but ended up abstaining, the official said.

Panama is consistently pro-Israeli and pro-American, he added. The Central American nation of 3.5 million, which is slightly smaller than South Carolina, said it believed that Palestine had the right to be recognized as a state and regretted not being able to vote for the resolution. “However,” the country’s foreign ministry said in a statement, Palestine “first needs to settle the differences with its neighbor, the State of Israel, which, like Palestine, is entitled to a life in peace and harmonious coexistence with Palestine and other states in the region.”

The electronic screen at the UN General Assembly showing the votes according to country (photo credit: screen capture UNGA livestream)
The electronic screen at the UN General Assembly showing the votes according to country (photo credit: screen capture UNGA livestream)

The Czech Republic’s vote delighted and surprised Israeli officials: It was the only European country to vote against the Palestinian statehood bid. “They have been consistently one of our best friends in the EU,” the official told The Times of Israel.

Berlin actually tried to pressure Prague to at least abstain in Thursday’s vote, to present a more-or-less unified European position. “But they don’t care what anyone else says; they’re ballsy,” the official said.

“We do not agree with any unilateral steps that may hamper or jeopardize the peace process leading to the two-state solution,” the Czech Foreign Ministry said in a statement. Prague voted against the resolution “because we are afraid that it might result in a further delay in the resumption of the negotiating process.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promptly called his Czech counterpart, Petr Necas, and thanked him for his country’s “courageous” stance. He promised to stop by in Prague on his way to a state visit to Germany this week to personally thank him for “standing up for the truth and for peace.”

“The history of Israel and the Czech Republic has taught us that one must cling to the truth, even if the majority is not with you,” Netanyahu told Necas. “Your vote must serve as an example for all those who support peace, which can be achieved only via direct negotiations without preconditions.”

Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman are also expected to call the leaders of the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau in the coming days to thank them personally for their support. Soon after Thursday’s vote, Netanyahu said that these nations deserve praise and that “history will judge them favorably.”

“The Pacific Island nations actually surprised us last week,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Times of Israel on Sunday. “They usually side with us because of the very strong emotional ties we have, but this time round we thought only Micronesia was with us.”

The “no” votes were the more surprising given that even many of Israel’s allies voted for the proposal, arguing that the Palestinians deserve a state and that this upgrade could reenergize the peace process.

“It is no mystery that many world leaders and many nations feel very strongly about, and have very deep emotional bonds with, Israel and the Jewish people. That is not something so exceptional and sometimes it translates into actual votes at the UN,” Palmor said by way of explanation. “Voting at the UN General Assembly is always the result of complex and intricate sets of pressures and interests. Whoever takes a country’s vote at face value and thinks that a vote accurately reflects a country’s true opinion on the issue at hand doesn’t know much about international diplomacy.”

Benjamin Netanyahu, shakes hands with Palau's president Johnson Toribiong . Nov 24 2011. (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
Benjamin Netanyahu (right) with Palau’s president Johnson Toribiong, November 24, 2011 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

But the support of the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru and Palau did not come out of nowhere, said Michael Ronen, Israel’s non-resident ambassador to 13 Pacific Islands, including the Marshall Islands and Micronesia, adding that he spent a lot of time lobbying before Thursday’s vote.

“We weren’t surprised that these four countries voted against a Palestinian state,” Ronen told Yedioth Ahronoth. “We’ve been working there in an orderly and continuous fashion for 30 years. We don’t tell them that we’re sending them an Israeli doctor in exchange for their vote. Other countries discover the Pacific only when they need it. A nation suddenly needs votes at the UN and instantly embraces these countries, offering them assistance, only to forget about them afterwards. We don’t work like that.”

Israel doesn’t buy votes, but it does send aid to the Pacific. Medical and agricultural experts have traveled to the South Pacific from Israel, and in the 1990s an Israeli coach trained a Micronesian national team. In addition, the leaders of these tiny island nations receive royal welcomes whenever they come to Israel, which adds to the warm feelings they feel toward the Jewish state.

“Whenever somebody likes us, it feels strange to us, almost like it’s against the laws of nature. But I don’t agree with that,” Ronen opined. “Their knowledge of us is based on the Bible and on Christianity… They really value the Jewish people and the State of Israel, what we’ve achieved and what we represent.”

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