Israel’s fate at Security Council may hinge on increasingly critical Europe

If Abbas takes his West Bank withdrawal demand to the UN this year, as promised, his chances aren’t bad. But if he waits till January, when Malaysia and Venezuela join the Council, they’re even better

Raphael Ahren is a former diplomatic correspondent at The Times of Israel.

Israeli envoy to the UN Ron Prosor addressing the UN Security Council, November 11, 2014. (Courtesy of the Israeli Mission to the UN)
Israeli envoy to the UN Ron Prosor addressing the UN Security Council, November 11, 2014. (Courtesy of the Israeli Mission to the UN)

The Palestinian Authority is threatening to go to the United Nations Security Council with a resolution calling for an Israeli withdrawal within two years to the pre-1967 lines. PA President Mahmoud Abbas declared this week that he intends to do so within the month — perhaps on the symbolic date of November 29, on which the UN in 1947 voted on its Partition Plan and in 2012 granted Palestine nonmember state status at the General Assembly.

In the council’s present constellation, it will be difficult — though certainly not impossible — to get the number of yes votes required to pass a resolution or force the US to veto it. However, if Abbas decided to hold off until next year, when five of the non-permanent Security Council members will be replaced, the chances of the Palestinian demarche will increase significantly.

With Malaysia and Venezuela replacing South Korea and Argentina in the new year, two countries openly hostile to Israel will enter the Security Council. Joined by Chad, three countries, or 20 percent of the world’s most important decision-making forum, will not have diplomatic relations with Israel.

For a resolution to pass it needs nine votes from the council’s 15 members. If that were to occur, one of its five permanent members — the US, the UK, China, France and Russia — could veto the resolution.

Of those five, only Washington can be reasonably expected to make use of its right to block the Palestinians’ move, but a US veto is by no means guaranteed.

Relations between the White House and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are famously strained, and Barack Obama, now entering the last stretch of his presidency and no longer tied to electoral considerations, could decide to turn his back on Jerusalem.

The US might be reluctant to isolate itself internationally by stymieing a move supported by a large majority of states in the United Nations, including the entire Arab world, especially as Washington seeks allies in its fight against the Islamic State terrorist group.

The United Nations Security Council meets at the UN on July 22, 2014 in New York City. (photo credit: Kena Betancur/Getty Images/AFP)
The United Nations Security Council (photo credit: Kena Betancur/Getty Images/AFP)

What about the other Security Council members?

In the current Security Council, Abbas could rely on five yes votes — from Chad, Chile, China, Jordan and Russia. (While generally friendly to Israel, Chile is home to the largest Palestinian community outside the Middle East. Under President Michelle Bachelet, Santiago summoned Israel’s ambassador during this summer’s Operation Protective Edge in protest of what it termed the “collective punishment” of Gazans.)

The maybes are Argentina, France, Great Britain, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Nigeria, Rwanda, and South Korea. Australia and the US are very likely no voters. Lots of imponderables in that mix.

Just a few weeks from now, though, the Palestinians would look at a clearer, brighter picture.

In 2015, Chad, Chile, China, Jordan, Malaysia, Russia and Venezuela would be virtually certain to support the Palestinian resolution, almost regardless of its wording. With seven yes votes in their pocket, the Palestinians would need to find only two other countries to pass the resolution or force a veto.

New Zealand (which replaces Australia in January) has generally friendly ties with Jerusalem. But unlike Canberra — which is one of Israel’s staunchest supporters in the world, if not the staunchest — Wellington is not considered particularly close, especially since a minor diplomatic row in September, when Jerusalem refused to accredit Jonathan Curr as New Zealand’s new ambassador to Israel because he was also slated to be the ambassador to the PA; the post has not been filled.

Wellington also voted in favor of Palestinian nonmember state status at the UN General Assembly in 2012, while Canberra abstained.

Nigeria and Angola (which replaces Rwanda) have close business ties with Israel, but both states voted in favor of Palestinian statehood two years ago.

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)

In the end, it might come down to the four European Union member states. France, Britain, Lithuania and Spain (which will replace Luxembourg) will try to formulate a common position ahead of a vote, and it is hard to predict which way they will lean. The EU, in principle, is opposed to unilateral moves, but has repeatedly threatened to take steps to pressure Israel vis-a-vis Palestinian statehood.

Vilnius has excellent relations with Jerusalem and, in isolation, could be expected on to vote in its favor, but the small Baltic state is a lightweight within the EU context and will likely follow the lead of Paris and London.

How would France and Britain vote? The British are heading toward an election, on May 7, and its parliament last month overwhelmingly voted in favor of a nonbinding resolution calling on the government to recognize a Palestinian state.

Lawmakers in Madrid and Paris are slated to vote on similar resolutions in the coming weeks. Both governments have deep sympathies for the Palestinian cause.

France will “obviously at a certain moment recognize the Palestinian state,” Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said Saturday. “The question is when and how? Because this recognition must be useful for efforts to break the deadlock and contribute to a final resolution of the conflict,” added Fabius.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas (R) meeting with French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius during the Gaza Donor Conference in Cairo on October 12, 2014. photo credit: (AFP/PPO / THAER GHANEM)
PA President Mahmud Abbas (R) meeting with French Foreign Minister Laurent in Cairo, October 12, 2014. photo credit: (AFP/PPO/Thaer Ghanem)

All of which diplomatic accounting suggests that the chances that the Palestinians could reach the nine required votes in the 2015 Security Council are reasonably high, a fact that is not lost on Jerusalem.

“The Foreign Ministry is working day and night on this matter,” said Emmanuel Nahshon, the ministry’s spokesman. “We remain in constant contact with current and future members of the UN Security Council to convey the message that a unilateral strategy does not contribute to a peaceful solution of the conflict, and that the UN Security should therefore not approve such an initiative.”

But does the US, Israel’s potential diplomatic savior, buy this argument? After the midterm elections and the Republican takeover of the Senate earlier this month, Obama is unlikely to get much work done domestically and may want to focus on foreign policy issues that could shape his legacy. Besides a nuclear agreement with Iran, the White House might also want to promote Middle East peace and pressure Israel through a pro-Palestinian resolution at the UN.

Some in Jerusalem worry that the Palestinians might use rather soft language in their draft resolution — perhaps even adopt segments from US Secretary of State John Kerry’s so-called framework agreement, which he devised during the last round of peace talks — which could render Washington more amenable to accepting it.

If the Palestinian application to the Security Council merely condemns Israeli settlement construction and calls for the creation of a Palestinian state in general terms, without delineating borders, Washington just might acquiesce to the initiative, or at least withhold its veto, some fear.

Perhaps ironically, it is therefore in Israel’s interest that the Palestinians adopt maximalist positions and use language that will be unacceptable to the US, the EU and the other countries still weighing how to vote on the matter. The more benign the PA’s formulations, the higher the chances that their draft resolution will be accepted.

Likewise, the sooner the Palestinians go to the UN, the better for Israel. As the arithmetic makes clear, if they do so within the next month — as promised by Abbas — or indeed anytime before December 31, the likelihood of the Security Council accepting their resolution is lower than if they wait for 2015. Notwithstanding Abbas’s promise this week, it’s a fair bet that he and his advisers have done their Security Council sums.

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