Ferry Bidermann
The National
June 29, 2011 - 12:00am

THE HAGUE // Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas is venturing into the Netherlands during the next few days, a country with one of the most pro-Israel governments in Europe and one that has made its opposition to a possible Palestinian membership vote at the UN in September explicit.

The timing of the visit, which starts late today, comes amid a concerted push by the Palestinian leadership to prepare for the looming vote, in which Europe is seen as key.

The European Union is divided on the issue, with a majority of its 27 member states expected to vote in favour of Palestinian UN-membership if it comes before the General Assembly in September. But several pivotal countries are either opposed or wavering, with Germany among the first and the UK, with its important permanent Security Council seat, among the latter.

The EU's governments, like the American administration, would prefer to avoid the question that has the potential to alienate either Arab and Muslim countries or Israel. So the bloc's governing body of heads of state, the European Council, last Friday issued a statement warning both sides "to abstain from unilateral actions that are not conducive to a comprehensive solution."

The EU has stated on several occasions that it would much prefer both sides to restart peace negotiations and come to a solution. A split vote of its members in the Security Council and the General Assembly would show the lack of cohesion in its foreign policy decisions.

The bloc's official position is that, "we are ready to recognise a Palestinian state when appropriate," said Maja Kocijancic, spokeswoman for the EU's foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton. "But issues of recognition remain the competence of the individual member states."

There is no doubt about the way the Netherlands will vote. Even the visit of Mr Abbas is controversial, with several right-wing parties that support the minority government in parliament boycotting meetings with him. Some paint Mr Abbas as a holocaust denier, others maintain that his Fatah movement still advocates the destruction of Israel. But one Dutch official said that the country feels "isolated within Europe".

While reaching out to the Netherlands may be futile for now, the Palestinian message may be aimed at the two countries that the Dutch usually co-ordinate their foreign policy with most closely, Germany and the UK. It would make sense for the Palestinians to aim most of their efforts at the EU because they will almost certainly not succeed in getting the US on their side, said Sinan Ülgen, at Carnegie Europe in Brussels.

"With the likely way that the US vote will go and possibly the Russians joining the Americans on this occasion, it is important to get the EU on their side," Mr Ülgen said of the Palestinians. A victory at the UN, though significant, would be much less effective if most of the world's major power blocs were against it, he said.

Much depends on what will happen in the few remaining months leading up to the vote. One of the factors that may be decisive for countries that are still weighing their positions will be Palestinian unity.

But unity talks between Fatah in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza are stuck once again and that could affect the equation, said Richard Gowan of the European Council on Foreign Relations, who is based in New York. "The EU has been a forceful supporter of the Palestinian effort at state building on the West Bank. If that regresses in terms of tensions between Hamas and Fatah, this could be significant."

Palestinian unity may be a prerequisite for more wholehearted EU support but it is presented by the Israelis as an obstacle to resumed negotiations. Israel points to the international position that Hamas should renounce violence, recognise Israel and commit to prior agreements. And the Dutch government will tell Mr Abbas once again that even if a neutral, technocrat, unity government is formed, it will have to agree to these conditions.

The main obstacle to renewed negotiations lies with the Israelis, Mr Ülgen said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government is simply not up to the task, he said. Only a realignment of the government, with Mr Netanyahu bringing in the more centrist Kadima party, would offer new opportunities.

This could happen partly under pressure of a threatened EU vote in favour of the Palestinians in September, Mr Ülgen said. The other factor that could help push Mr Netanyahu is the need for "a reset" with Turkey, once a powerful regional ally, now at times openly hostile to them. Mr Ülgen said that he had received signals from Turkish sources that such an Israeli government realignment may be in the cards.

This is only a slim prospect and most agree that the vote at the UN is most likely to take place and that the outcome is a foregone conclusion. "It is not unusual for the Americans and Israel to be in a minority of one or two, when votes on the Palestinians come up," Mr Gowan said.


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