The floodgates have begun to open across Europe on
recognition of Palestinian statehood. On Friday the Portuguese parliament became
the latest European legislature to call on its government to back statehood,
joining Sweden, Britain, Ireland, France and Spain.
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In coming days similar moves are expected in Denmark and
from the European Parliament. The Swiss government will join the fray too this
week, inviting states that have signed the Fourth Geneva Convention to an
extraordinary meeting to discuss human rights violations in the occupied
territories. Israel has threatened retaliation.
But while Europe is tentatively finding a voice in the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict, silence reigns across the Atlantic. The White
House appears paralyzed, afraid to appear out of sync with world opinion but
more afraid still of upsetting Israel and its powerful allies in the US
Now there is an additional complicating factor. The
Israeli public, due to elect a new Israeli government in three months' time,
increasingly regards the US role as toxic. A poll this month found that 52 percent viewed President Barack Obama's diplomatic policy as "bad," and 37 percent
thought he had a negative attitude towards their country -- more than double the
figure two years ago.
US Secretary of State John Kerry alluded to the White
House's difficulties this month when he addressed the Saban Forum, an annual
gathering of US policy elites to discuss the Middle East. He promised that
Washington would not interfere in Israel's elections.
According to the Israeli media, he was responding to
pressure from Tzipi Livni, sacked this month from Benjamin Netanyahu's
government, triggering the forthcoming election, and opposition leader Yitzhak
Herzog, of the centre-left Labor party.
The pair recently made a pact in an effort to oust
Netanyahu. Their electoral success -- improbable at the moment -- offers the White
House its best hope of an Israeli government that will at least pay lip service
to a renewal of peace negotiations, which collapsed last April. They have
warned, however, that any sign of backing from the Obama administration would be
the kiss of death at the polls.
US officials would like to see Netanyahu gone, not least
because he has been the biggest obstacle to reviving a peace process that for
two decades successfully allayed international pressure to create a Palestinian
state. But any visible strategy against Netanyahu is almost certain to
Washington's difficulties are only underscored by the
Palestinians' threat to bring a draft resolution before the UN Security Council
as soon as this week, demanding Israel's withdrawal by late 2016 to the 1967
Given the current climate, the Palestinians are hopeful
of winning the backing of European states, especially the three key ones in the
Security Council -- Britain, France and Germany -- and thereby isolating the US.
Arab foreign ministers met Kerry on Tuesday in an effort to persuade Washington
not to exercise its veto.
The US, meanwhile, is desperately trying to postpone a
vote, fearful that casting its veto might further discredit it in the eyes of
the world while also suggesting to Israeli voters that Netanyahu has the White
House in his pocket.
But indulging the Israeli right also has risks,
bolstering it by default. That danger was driven home during another session of
the Saban Forum, addressed by settler leader Naftali Bennett. He is currently
riding high in the polls and will likely be the backbone of the next coalition
Bennett says clearly what Netanyahu only implies: that
most of the West Bank should be annexed, with the Palestinians given
demilitarized islands of territory that lack sovereignty. The model, called
"autonomy," is of the Palestinians ruling over a series of local
The Washington audience was further shocked by Bennett's
disrespectful treatment of his interviewer, Martin Indyk, who served as Obama's
representative at the last round of peace talks. He accused Indyk of not living
in the real world, dismissively calling him part of the "peace
Bennett's goal, according to analysts, was to prove to
Israeli voters that he is not afraid to stand up to the Americans.
Given its weakening hand -- faced with an ever-more
right-wing Israeli public and a more assertive European one -- Washington is
looking towards an unlikely savior. The hawkish foreign minister Avigdor
Lieberman used to be its bete noire, but he has been carefully recalibrating his
Unlike other candidates, he has been aggressively
promoting a "peace plan." The US has barely bothered examining its contents,
which are only a little more generous than Bennett's annexation option, and
involve forcibly stripping hundreds of thousands of Palestinians in Israel of
Lieberman, however, has usefully created the impression
that he is a willing partner to a peace process. At the weekend he even
suggested he might join a center coalition with Livni and Herzog.
Lieberman is cleverly trying to occupy a middle ground
with Israeli voters, demonstrating that he can placate the Americans, while
offering a plan so unfair to the Palestinians that there is no danger voters
will consider him part of the "peace industry."
That may fit the electoral mood: a recent poll showed 63
percent of Israelis favor peace negotiations, but 70 percent think they are
doomed to fail. The Israeli public, like Lieberman, understands that the
Palestinians will never agree to the kind of subjugation they are being
The Israeli election's one certain outcome is that,
whoever wins, the next coalition will, actively or passively, allow more of the
same: a slow, creeping annexation of what is left of a possible Palestinian
state, as the US and Europe bicker.
A version of this article first appeared in The National, Abu Dhabi.