Palestine in the UN -- as seen from the Balkans by Hajrudin Somun*

It seems that Tuesday, Sept. 20, will be a historic day in the United Nations’ »»

It seems that Tuesday, Sept. 20, will be a historic day in the United Nations’ dealings with the Middle East. Immediately after declaring its statehood in 1948, Israel was admitted to the UN.

Those who were forced to leave the Holy Land that they had been sharing with Jews for centuries, now, after 63 years, are seeking to have their own statehood recognized by the same world organization. Everything that has been happening in the meantime is well known. The circumstances have changed since 1948, but that which we often refer to as the world order has not changed significantly: The US, which recognized Israel immediately back then, will veto Palestine’s UN membership now.

Before reviewing the attitude of the Balkan region towards Palestine’s bid for UN recognition of its state, I have good reason to recall briefly what is generally expected by the highest Palestinian authorities. Palestine’s President Mahmoud Abbas was in Sarajevo during the last days of August, on a lobbying mission while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was doing the same elsewhere. I was invited to meet Mahmoud Abbas, known by Palestinians only as Abu Mazen, as I am an old supporter of the Palestinian cause. Some of his aides called me saying “Come see Abu Mazen, Abu Leyla!” -- the nickname Palestinians gave me  as I was attending some important events in the first phase of their “revolutionary struggle,” back in “Black September” in Jordan in 1970. This time I confirmed an old impression I had about Abbas’ calm political reasonableness and intellectual capacity that were hidden under the clamorous charisma of Yasser Arafat. He looked very steady as he told me that nobody could cause him to waver in his decision to go to the UN with his request for Palestine’s state recognition. To my question, “Even to the Security Council where America’s veto is awaiting you?” he simply replied with “Of course!” “And if you fail, what will you do?” I asked. “It will not be a disaster,” he said, “We shall continue further. Our main aim is to continue negotiations. We are not in favor of confrontation with anybody -- Israel or the US.”

‘Majority of European countries are with us’

Convinced that they will have enough votes at the UN General Assembly, and if they fail in the Security Council, Abbas told Azzam a-Ahmad, the head of the Palestinian Legislative Council, and his lobbying envoy to brief me about the updated position of its UN bid. “China fully supports us,” I was told by al-Ahmad, who went there with Abbas’ message. “Foreign Minister [Sergey] Lavrov promised Russia’s support as well, albeit with some hesitation,” he continued. “The majority of European countries are with us. The French surprised us with its negative attitude. The British will probably not vote in favor of our proposal, but they are not as decisive as those who are strictly against the Palestinians. Turkey is with us, naturally. In any case, in the General Assembly there are a possible 130 votes.”

During the next few days after he left Bosnia and Herzegovina, Abbas found himself under great pressure from the US and some European countries to give up or delay his quest. Trying to tone down lofty expectations by his own people at the same time, he gathered a large number of members and supporters of al-Fatah, the core of the moderate Palestinian movement, warning them that “going to the UN doesn’t mean the end of the occupation of our land. This is a prelude for ending the occupation and achieving our independence and sovereignty.” Many people talked to Abbas, warning him about the explicit American opposition to his bid. State Secretary Hillary Clinton called him to say the same, only in more polite terms. The EU foreign ministers gathered in Sopot, Poland, in an attempt to agree on a single position, but in the end remained divided on the issue. Germany and Italy publicly opposed the idea, but Spain and some other member states pledged to vote in favor. The head of EU foreign policy, Catherine Ashton, complained that the Palestinian proposal was still unknown, mentioning a “Vatican option” as a compromising solution. Palestine would be recognized by the General Assembly as a state, but not a member state. It would have rather observer status, which would allow Palestine to attain full membership of the UN agencies and some other international organizations.

Returning to the Balkan countries’ position, it seems they are also divided, but due to their “transitional situation,” as with everything else, they might be among the abstainers in the UN. For those going rarely to the region, it is not easy to explain what is happening here. Abbas was, for example, confused by the Bosnian leadership’s different approach towards Palestine. While the Bosnian and Croatian members of the tripartite presidency supported the Palestinian UN bid, the Serbs were reserved, leaving the matter for further consultation. “Who is that Serb who has a different opinion?” he asked me. It is also difficult to explain how it has happened that most of the countries in the region are now hesitant and avoid having a clear stance not only on the complex Palestine issue, but on issues across the whole Middle East. All of the countries of the Balkans have supported the Arabs for decades and are against Israeli policy. Is this due to their belonging to the communist camp or the Non Aligned Movement and that some of them now are not part of the EU and others are striving to join it? It might be the case, but how is one to explain that Greece, despite being neither communist, nor nonaligned, provided shelter to Arafat and his commandos fleeing Lebanon, and was the last EU country to recognize Israel, but now allows the Israeli Air Force (IAF) to conduct military exercises over Greek territory?

Trouble in getting clear answer from Balkans

In such an environment both Palestinian and Israeli leaders have not been able to get a clear answer from the Balkans about who they will vote for, and which countries will be against Palestine’s UN bid. It is not only Greece that Israel targeted as an alternative for deteriorating relations with Turkey. There is even competition between Greece, Bulgaria and Romania in this respect. Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borisov proposed to Netanyahu that Israel’s air force conduct exercises in Bulgarian airspace as well, and Romania came up with the same proposal even before Greece. The three countries are also competing to attract the 400,000 Israeli tourists, who would traditionally go to Turkey, to their resorts. This could have an effect on the countries’ stance on Palestine’s bid to the UN.  When asked by Netanyahu in July not to vote for Palestinian recognition, Borisov simply replied, “Wait for September. …There is still time.” September has arrived and there could be more surprises in store for Israel.

Marking half a century since its founding, the Non-Aligned Movement brought together more than 100 foreign ministers and top officials for a meeting in Belgrade at the beginning of September. Although meant to be a retrospective, some could not help but discuss the upcoming UN session. A Palestinian delegate, who was attending the meeting, believed that “all former Yugoslav countries -- including Serbia -- will support the Palestinian resolution at the UN.” He was, however, too optimistic, because Croatia, Slovenia and Macedonia will wait to see what the EU’s approach is. Bosnia and Herzegovina is blocked by the Bosnian Serbs’ opposition and their special relations with Israel. That might change depending on the final decision of Serbia, which used, or rather, misused the meeting in Belgrade to connect voting for Palestinian statehood with “not recognizing” Kosovo’s independence. The Non-Aligned Movement member states, many with a Muslim majority, support Palestine and have recognized it as an independent state, but they remain reserved regarding Kosovo. Earlier this year, Abbas was also in Belgrade where he was told by President Boris Tadic that Serbia would support Palestine at the UN General Assembly. The Palestinian Ambassador later noted that Palestinians will never recognize Kosovo, which was always part of Serbia. Later, top Serbian officials praised Israel’s decision not to recognize Kosovo and expressed that Serbia “supports Israel in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” As it was stressed by Erdoan Shipoli in Today’s Zaman in July, “the problem thus is whether Serbia will support Palestine or Israel, both of whom have not recognized Kosovo, in the General Assembly in September.”

It is fair to admit that Israelis were more active than Palestinians in lobbying the central and southeastern European countries not to support Palestinian statehood, especially using their new political orientation towards the West. Netanyahu, while visiting Bucharest in July, said that the Balkan countries “lived under tyranny, so they are much more skeptical, they are much more respectful of a democracy arrayed against totalitarian forces.” Reuters said that there are “feelings of affinity among some Balkan Muslims who, like Jews, withstood genocide.”  I would not agree, however, with what the Egyptian weekly, “Al-Ahram,” recently wrote. “It seems likely that Balkan states will support the Israeli-US position in rejecting the request by the Arab League to allow the Palestinian membership in the UN.” Instead of casting a vote, they would rather take a neutral position.

The UN perspective on Palestine, however, doesn’t depend on the position of the Balkans, but on the whole world. I share Palestine’s expectations from the General Assembly voting, but fear a risky quest in the Security Council. Perhaps a compromising formula might be found at the last moment because Abbas is keeping the full content of his plan until the evening of Sept. 19, when it is supposed that he will hand it to the UN Secretary General. There is increasing understanding and support among the majority of the international community for the legitimate Palestinian right for its own statehood, later noted that Palestinians will never recognize Kosovo, particularly following an Israeli raid on an aid flotilla last year and atrocities committed against civilians in Gaza in 2009. Uprisings in the Arab world are a completely new factor making it necessary for a more urgent solution to be found to the Israeli-Palestinian by realizing the “two states formula.” In fact, Israel has been in existence for 63 years and it should realize that its own safety will be “secured” only when there is a viable state of Palestine as well.

*Hajrudin Somun is the former ambassador of Bosnia and Herzegovina to Turkey.