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France walks tightrope in Palestinian statehood bid

The Palestinian Authority has launched its campaign to be recognised as a state by the United Nations. While international support is polarised, France is looking for common ground to appease diplomatic tensions.


Confronted by a deadlock in the peace process with Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) on Thursday launched a formal campaign to become a member state of the United Nations.

At a ceremony in Ramallah on the West Bank, some 100 Palestinian officials and activists set out their plans in an informal letter addressed to UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. “We urge you to add your moral voice in support of the Palestinian people enjoying a life of freedom and dignity, like the rest of the people of the world,” the letter says.

The PA plans to submit its formal application to the UN General Assembly on September 21, despite US opposition, which said it would veto any proposal to the Security Council. The PA only needs a two-thirds majority from the General Assembly to be granted observer status at the UN, although a veto would prevent it from becoming a full member.

Based on the 1967 pre-Six Day war borders, the PA proposition includes the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with East Jerusalem as the capital of the new state.

It has already been rejected en bloc by the Israeli government.

"The unilateral demand of the Palestinians is a violation of commitments by the Palestinians in their agreements with Israel," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the end of August.

France searching for common ground

France, meanwhile, has been stepping up its diplomatic activity in order to avoid a “sterile and dangerous” situation at the UN, according to Foreign Minister Alain Juppé.

A former French diplomat to the Middle East, who spoke to FRANCE 24 on condition of anonymity, said that Paris was “leading a diplomatic balancing act based on three objectives”.

According to him, the French government wants Israel and the US to be appeased, the peace process to be given a fair chance to resume, and the UN to respond as positively as possible to the PA proposal.

In March, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said that European Union recognition of a Palestinian State was “one direction that should be kept in mind” in the absence of any agreement with Israel.

This policy was confirmed by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who in a May interview with French weekly L’Express, said that France would “live up to its responsibilities on the central question of recognising a Palestinian state” if the peace process was still going nowhere by September.

France’s determination was reinforced last week with the sacking of the country’s Middle East peace process envoy Valerie Offenburg after she told the AFP news agency that “on a personal level”, she was opposed to the PA plan to seek UN recognition.

The Vatican model?

France is seeking an intermediate solution under which the Palestinians would opt for the same model as the Vatican City, the unnamed former French diplomat told FRANCE 24.

Under this solution, the PA would be offered a permanent observer status at the UN. To get this, the PA would have to address its request directly to the UN General Assembly, a way to circumvent the US veto in the Security Council but also to renounce a full member state status.

So far, the PA has rejected this option. PA Foreign Minister Riad al-Maliki told local media that seeking observer status at the UN was not appropriate.

“In any case, the PA can get observer status whenever it wants because it already has the support of a majority of member states,” he said.

Meanwhile, PA envoy to Paris Hael al-Fahoum told FRANCE 24 that Palestinian leaders had received no official proposition on these lines, either from France or from the EU.

“But we support the dynamism of French diplomacy and its attempts to find a reasonable solution,” he said.

Europe divided

To convince the Palestinians not to set the bar too high, “Paris would need to convince the rest of the EU so that the message carries more weight,” said the former French diplomat.

But this will not be simple: the 27 EU members have different policies and while countries like Germany and the Netherlands are opposed to unilateral action, Spain fully supports the PA demand.

France is determined however to find a common EU line. “The EU must speak with one voice,” Sarkozy told assembled ambassadors in Paris last Wednesday. “Together we must assume our responsibilities. We need European unity.”

European foreign ministers meeting at Sopot in Poland at the beginning of September held back from announcing a common position.

After talks with his counterparts, Juppé said that finding a common position “would be very nice, but it’s still early days” – suggesting that France is still a long way off from finding common ground.

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