Sarkozy takes lead as Middle East peace broker

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Riding on France's new status in the Arab world following the Libya War, French President Nicolas Sarkozy called yesterday (21 September) for an "intermediate stage" in the recognition of Palestine by the United Nations.

Sarkozy's proposal to admit Palestine to the United Nations as an observer state, like the Vatican, is in sharp contrast with the position of the United States which said they would veto the bid by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for full membership.

In his speech to the UN General Assembly, Sarkozy called for "one year to reach a definitive agreement" between Israel and the Palestinians, saying the usual US-led peace process should not bypass European, Arab or other countries.

"We should not believe that one country only, be it the largest one, or that a small group of countries can solve a problem of such complexity. Too many major actors are left on the sidelines," Sarkozy said, according to a transcript, released by the Elysée.

The French President rejected the US strategy of imposing a veto to the Palestinian bid. "Let's admit the truth: who could doubt that a veto at the Security Council risks engendering a cycle of violence in the Middle East? Who could doubt it," he repeated.

"The method does not function […] Let's change the method! Let's change the spirit!" Sarkozy exclaimed.

"Must we therefore exclude an intermediate stage? Why not envisage offering Palestine the status of United Nations observer state? This would be an important step forward, and we would move at last after 60 years of immobility, of the immobility which has become the have of extremists," Sarkozy said.

Under UN rules, any bid for full membership requires a recommendation from the Security Council and then a two-thirds majority in the 193-member General Assembly.

Non-member status would require only a straight majority in the General Assembly where no veto is possible. It would also give the Palestinians access to international bodies like the World Health Organisation and perhaps the International Criminal Court.

The French leader later met with US President Barack Obama who has insisted that only negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians can forge a lasting peace.

US President Obama told Mahmoud Abbas in a meeting that UN action would not lead to a Palestinian state and that the United States would veto such a move in the Security Council, the White House said.

"Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the UN," he said. "Ultimately, it is Israelis and Palestinians – not us – who must reach agreement on the issues that divide them: on borders and security; on refugees and Jerusalem," Obama was quoted as saying.

Obama did not comment on the French leader's proposals, but Ben Rhodes, a deputy national security advisor, said Sarkozy's suggestions were "important" and "constructive," AFP reported.

A senior European Union official quoted by AP said the proposal laid out by Sarkozy matched that of EU foreign policy Chief Catherine Ashton during a meeting with EU foreign ministers on Tuesday. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the discussions.

But it remains unclear if all EU countries align with Sarkozy's proposal, as several East European EU members tend to align with US positions on Middle East issues.

France has a five million Muslim population and some 600.000 Jews. According to French political commentators, Sarkozy's initiative should be seen in the context of the upcoming French presidential elections in May 2012.

Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Center and fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, told the Gulf Times about the possible scenarios for the Palestinian bid.

According to Shaikh, the first possible scenario for the process is if the Palestinians get the nine ‘yes’ votes that they need to pass any resolution in the Security Council (SC). If they cannot achieve that then the US will not have to use its veto, but if they get them then the US or another permanent member of the SC will have to exercise their veto power.


In the meantime, 10 non-member states in the SC are being put under great pressure to vote one way or the other, or to abstain, and it is not yet clear how the vote will go.


“There is a scenario where Palestinians are able to get nine affirmative votes but it does not go straight to the voting procedure,” Shaikh said, “and there is another scenario where the president of the SC, which is normally the case, will refer this to a special committee inside the SC which consists of all the members of the SC to discuss this application – its called the ‘Committee on New Admissions.’ This committee could take a number of months before we get to any kind of a vote and in fact it may go backwards and forwards in that respect,” Shaikh explains.

One more scenario would allow the General Assembly (GA) to override the SC, which can happen if half the GA agrees to call an emergency special session, and then two thirds of voting members vote for the resolution during that session.

That route, said Shaikh, would be tantamount to Palestine pressing for the “nuclear option…a no holds barred kind of race to secure the two thirds vote needed to pass that sort of resolution.”

Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and chair of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), plans to call on the United Nations this month to admit a Palestinian state as a member of the international organisation.

The Palestinians want their status upgraded from 'observer' to full membership, but might have to settle in the end for 'non-member state', similar to the Vatican.

The PLO's strategy threatens to put the Palestinian leadership on a political and diplomatic collision course with Israel and the United States. 

Full membership as an independent state would require the support of the UN Security Council. But the United States has said it would veto such a Palestinian resolution.

A majority of MEPs highlighted the need for presenting a unified and coherent European Union position on the question of recognition of the Palestinian state at the 66th UN General Assembly, despite their division over this issue, during a plenary debate in Strasbourg this week.

 

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