Palestine vote a delicate balancing act for Cyprus

By Stefanos Evripidou Published on September 23, 2011
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EU, gas, israel, Palestine, UN, Opinions

Turkey’s sabre-rattling over the start of drilling in Cyprus’ Exclusive Economic Zone has kept all Cypriot eyes on the Mediterranean, but for the rest of the world, the question of Palestinian statehood in New York has dominated the agenda. 

President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas has had diplomats around the world clocking overtime with his pledge to request Palestinian statehood at the UN Security Council (UNSC). 

Drilling and the Palestinian question are not completely unrelated, as any step towards statehood at the UN will require a response from its members. And Cyprus will be called upon to take a position, hoping to strike a balance between keeping old friends, the Palestinians, happy, and not upsetting new strategic energy ally, Israel. 

Sitting clearly behind the EU fence, Foreign Minister Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis has said Cyprus will follow any common position banged out by the EU. She is not alone. The issue of Palestinian statehood has shaken many EU capitals, forcing them to prepare scenarios aiming to keep a balance between the demands of Israel and the US on the one hand, and the Palestinians - supported by Arab public opinion - on the other. 

A number of scenarios are on the table involving much more than securing statehood, but also drawing borders, and securing access to the International Criminal Court and Court of Justice. 

A number of EU diplomats told the Cyprus Mail yesterday that nobody quite knows what will happen, with the issue expected to go to the wire amid a flurry of shuttle diplomacy between the interested parties. 

Abbas will make a speech at the UN General Assembly (UNGA) today, where he is expected to table his request for Palestinian statehood. This in turn requires a vote at the Security Council where he needs nine votes out of 15, including either support or abstention from the five permanent members. If he fails to secure nine votes, the US doesn’t have to use its pledged veto. 

A vote at the Security Council could take some time depending on how long it takes to be tabled in the Council. A lot can happen before then too. Ironically, a Council vote leaves Cyprus in the clear as it has yet to win a seat in the UN’s top body. 

Another option is to adopt French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s proposal to upgrade the Palestinians to a non-member or observer state within the UN while at the same time launching peace negotiations to conclude within a year. This requires a vote in the UNGA. As a member of the General Assembly, Cyprus will have a decision to make, striking a balance between long-standing principles and very clear national interests.  

This is where the EU comes in as a member of the Quartet (along with Russia, the US and UN) responsible for dealing with the Middle East conflict. According to one EU diplomat, the EU’s External Action Service under Catherine Ashton has been pushing for this second alternative to avoid potential turmoil in the Security Council and, by extension, within the EU. 

“By and large, the impression is that the Palestinians appreciate the EU’s role so far and feel it’s been fair and helpful. We’ve tried to warn them that if they put us in a corner, the whole thing could blow up in our face. We’ll have different member states going in different directions. It will be very ugly, a typical EU disaster,” he said.   

Germany is a non-permanent member of the Security Council, as is Portugal. The last time Germany abstained in the UNSC over a Libya resolution, public opinion centred on whether the foreign minister felt the government belonged to the ‘West’ or not.  

This time, the Germans are approaching the issue cautiously, wary of support both for and against Palestinian statehood. Either way, if push comes to shove, Germany’s self-evident ties to Israel will lead it to either abstain or vote against statehood. 

France has been traditionally sympathetic to the Palestinian cause, though the understanding now is that if the issue goes to the Security Council, this will be a “disaster” for the Palestinians. A US veto could torpedo any chance of peace talks resuming in the near future.

Britain has kept its cards close to its chest, hoping instead to use this grey area to manoeuvre between all sides and avoid a “roadblock” at the Security Council. 

However, given the possible backlash in the Middle East from a US veto, the pressure on “special” ally Britain will be great to join the Americans in setting up that roadblock. 

On the other hand, the EU will most likely squeeze out a common position among the 27 on a vote on Palestine being upgraded to ‘observer state’ in the General Assembly.  

“If they go for upgraded status, we will come through and support them in the UNGA as a whole, strong unit,” said the diplomat.

“It would be very difficult for an individual member state to take a unilateral decision outside of a common position, it would leave them exposed. But if we could pull it off and the Palestinians go for it, it’s the best deal we can get. Otherwise, things will be very unpleasant,” he added. 

Another diplomat said: “As far as Cyprus is concerned, the most comfortable situation is where the EU votes as a whole and they’re a part of it, sheltered in the team. 

“It becomes more difficult for everybody if Palestinians or Israelis phone up and ask why one country specifically voted this way or that because everybody at that point is individually pressurable.”

What Abbas chooses to say or do will have a massive impact on the future of the region and the people in it, as well as for relations between the Middle East and US. 

On a much more micro level, for Cyprus, one would imagine the aim is to have as little impact as possible, to keep its own delicate balance between friends in need and friends in deed. 

As a third diplomat noted: “It would be very uncomfortable for Cyprus to go against Israel or the Palestinians. It would be uncomfortable for all of us.”