Matthew Price
BBC World News
September 22, 2011 - 12:00am

The Palestinians' drive to achieve statehood has had diplomats around the world scrambling to decide their positions - not least within the EU, where it is testing the limits of a common foreign policy.

The battle started several months ago, and the battleground was Europe.

Cables were sent out across the continent's EU member states. Orders were given: lobby high officials, gather the backing of local supporters, flood the media with sympathetic articles.

It was, according to the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, an Israeli foreign ministry initiative designed to exploit the differences within Europe and derail the Palestinians' proposed UN bid for statehood.

According to the leaked cables, Israel divided the EU into three groups:

1- Those against any unilateral Palestinian action. Haaretz said a foreign ministry source put Germany and Italy in this group.

2- Countries "whose stance is unclear, particularly members of the former Eastern Bloc that had recognised a Palestinian state back in 1988"

3- Those nations that generally support the Palestinians - among them Portugal, which is currently a non-permanent member of the UN Security Council

Israel had seen the difficulties the EU had had in reaching a consensus on Kosovo's independence. It sought the same over the Palestinians.

Breaking rank

The EU's member states are often keen to speak their minds on issues of such significance but on this one, of whether to back the unilateral bid for statehood, most have been careful to keep their differences private.

As such the "common EU view" is being touted by the bloc's foreign policy chief - the head of the European External Action Service (EEAS), Catherine Ashton.

That view - which takes on board the variety of opinion within the bloc, according to a spokesperson for Baroness Ashton - is that the EU supports the idea of a Palestinian state, that the way to achieve one is through negotiation, and that as far as the UN bid goes, the Palestinians must decide how to proceed.

"We have had a united view on the Middle East peace process," said another spokesperson for Baroness Ashton, "and we want to maintain that."

From countries like Britain there has been support for that line. "We side with the EEAS on this," said one source. Others, though, have broken rank, and exposed once again the difficulties of operating a foreign policy that satisfies 27 different nations.

The Czech prime minister told reporters after meetings in Jerusalem recently that his country was against "unilateral steps", suggesting the Czechs would certainly not support the Palestinian bid.

Then there are countries like Slovenia who say they are, in principle, in favour of the Palestinian bid and would like to support it, but they will try to align their position with that of the EEAS.

More important are the French, who through their Foreign Minister, Alain Juppe, made it clear they are opposed to the Palestinian move.

"If you go to the Security Council and then afterward there is an American veto, then nothing will happen on the ground except perhaps a resumption of violence because people are frustrated," he said.

Ashton under fire

How - and whether - Catherine Ashton can find a way through these differences will say as much about European unity as it will about her own leadership of the EEAS.

She has been much criticised from within and outside Brussels for what many have perceived as a lacklustre performance in running the EEAS so far.

Catherine Ashton met Mahmoud Abbas in New York on Monday So some surprise has been expressed by diplomats this week at her apparent ability and willingness to shuttle across New York, seeking a solution that is acceptable to the EU-27, and the USA.

Officials close to Baroness Ashton believe she is helped by the fact that Europe is seen by the Palestinians as a more neutral arbiter in the Middle East than the US.

Then again the Palestinians know it is US policy that really counts.

Catherine Ashton is working on persuading the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, to go not to the UN Security Council, but instead to the General Assembly, to ask them to upgrade the Palestinian status at the UN.

There would, as part of this deal, be a statement from the Middle East Quartet which includes the EU, establishing a timeframe for negotiations.

The indications are so far that this would be an acceptable outcome for the EU's member states and the Americans.

Would it, though, represent a success for "Europe" in general, and Catherine Ashton in particular?

Coming up with a package that all 27 member states, with their differing views, can fall behind would be no mean feat - in that sense she would have passed a crucial test in terms of demonstrating her skills in driving through a common EU foreign policy position.

The plan also has to be acceptable to the US and Israel on the one hand, and the Palestinians on the other - again that is clearly not an easy ask.

Then again, as those leaked Israeli cables suggest, perhaps driving through a compromise on this issue is exactly what Israel hoped for in the first place.

As Haaretz reported, the Israeli foreign ministry's head of the Western Europe department, Naor Gilon, wrote: "It's clear that the EU bureaucracy in Brussels will try to enter into a dialogue with the Palestinians in an effort to moderate the [UN] resolution so that EU members could support it."

Catherine Ashton - in seeking to find a solution that is acceptable to all EU member states - is by necessity hoping to dilute the Palestinian bid.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017