France announced Tuesday that it plans to vote in favor of upgrading the Palestinians to an "observer state" at the U.N. General Assembly on Thursday. The 193-member assembly seems assured to approve the initiative, which would implicitly recognize Palestinian statehood.
With the announcement, France became the first major European country to come out in favor, dealing a setback to Israel. The timing of the announcement appears aimed at swaying other European nations.
Israel strongly opposes the bid and is concerned the Palestinians could ask the International Criminal Court at The Hague — which is not an official U.N. body — to prosecute its leaders. However, Israel has decided to take a less vociferous diplomatic approach to battling the Palestinian move. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman have decided to respond moderately to the Palestinian initiative, while Israeli diplomats in the U.N. have reacted to it with general apathy because it is still unclear how tangible such a status upgrade would really be from a legal point of view.
Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz told Army Radio on Wednesday that Israel would respond to the Palestinian U.N. initiative, the only questions being when and how strongly.
"If the Palestinian Authority thinks that it can attack us so harshly at the U.N. and continue to benefit from cooperation with us on the ground, there are some surprises ahead for it on the schedule," Steinitz said.
French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius told parliament that France has long supported Palestinian ambitions for statehood and "will respond 'Yes'" when the issue comes up for a vote "out of a concern for coherency."
Unlike the Security Council, there are no vetoes in the General Assembly and the resolution is virtually certain of approval. But such a vote by France — a permanent council member — could weigh on decisions in other European capitals.
Europe is divided over the issue. Denmark, Norway, Spain, Switzerland are among the countries to have announced they will vote "yes" while Germany is expected to vote "no" or abstain.
Britain, which recently pushed European countries to abstain on the U.N. vote, has asked the Palestinians to forego joining the ICC in return for its vote. Britain's U.N. Ambassador Mark Lyall Grant said London had not yet decided how to vote.
"We have made consistently clear that it is wrong for the Palestinians to bring this resolution to a vote at this time and that it isn't likely to be a helpful contribution to the peace process in the Middle East," he told reporters on Tuesday.
The Palestinians, for their part, said they would not rush to sign up to the International Criminal Court if they win the U.N. status upgrade on Thursday, but warned that seeking action against Israel in the court would remain an option, said the Palestinian U.N. observer.
"I don't believe that we are going to be rushing the second day to join everything related to the United Nations, including the ICC," Palestinian U.N. observer, Riyad Mansour, told a news conference at the United Nations on Tuesday.
In April, the ICC rejected a Palestinian request to examine alleged crimes in Gaza and the West Bank because the Palestinian territories were not a full U.N. member. But the Palestinian move on Tuesday to downplay their ICC aspirations appeared to be a bid to build European support ahead of the U.N. status vote.
In Washington, State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said France's decision wouldn't change the U.S. assessment of the Palestinian action as a "mistake."
"With regard to France and any other countries, we obviously disagree with our oldest ally on this issue," she told reporters. "They know that we disagree with them. But it's their sovereign decision."
The United States has suggested aid for the Palestinians — and possibly some funding for the United Nations — could also be at risk if the Palestinians win the U.N. upgrade. Israel has said it may cancel the Paris Protocol, a key economic accord it maintains with the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority.
A 1990s U.S. law prohibits American funds going to U.N. organizations that grant full membership to any group that does not have "internationally recognized attributes" of statehood. The Palestinians are not seeking U.N. membership.
The Palestinians launched their watered-down bid for recognition as an "observer state" after an attempt to gain full U.N. membership last year failed amid U.S. opposition in the U.N. Security Council.
As French lawmakers applauded Tuesday — many of them members or allies of the Socialist-led government — Fabius cautioned against raising Palestinian hopes too high.
"But, but, but, but, but — but at the same time, madame and monsieur lawmakers, we must show in this case a lot of lucidity," he said.
"On the one hand, because the text is currently being discussed and I myself had (Palestinian Authority) President Mahmoud Abbas on the phone yesterday morning," he said. "On the other hand, because — let's not hide from this — that this question will be asked at a very delicate moment."
He went on to note the "fragile cease-fire" after the recent deadly fighting between Hamas and Israel, the Israeli election in January, and the upcoming "change in composition of the American administration" — with the United States seen by many as perhaps the most pivotal player in the region.
"In any case, it's only through negotiations — that we ask for without conditions and immediately between the two sides — that we will be able to reach the realization of a Palestinian state," Fabius said.
According to Mansour, if Israel continued to violate international law, particularly by building settlements in the West Bank, then the Palestinians would consult with friends, including Europe, on "what should we do next to bring Israel into compliance?"
"We're not in the business of trying to prolong this conflict and settle scores," Mansour said. "But we are neither fools nor dummies. If they don't move in that direction ... then all of us should be considering all other possible options in order to bring them into compliance."
One envoy from a European country, as yet undecided on how it will vote, said the Palestinian comments on the ICC were "unlikely to be sufficient" to win broad European backing. "A vague promise not to go to the ICC won't cut it," he said.
Mansour said there were currently almost 60 co-sponsors of the Palestinian resolution and that he expected that to increase by the time it is put to a vote in the General Assembly.
"We tried very hard to win the largest number of European countries to vote in favor; we are delighted a certain number have declared their support for our draft resolution," he said.
Australia will abstain from voting on the issue, which has divided its government and been condemned by the opposition party.
"The government's position balances our long-standing support for the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination and their own state with our concern that the only durable basis for resolution of this conflict is direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians," Prime Minister Julia Gillard said in a statement Tuesday announcing her stance.
Gillard said her Center-Left Labor Party government colleagues were divided. However, she has the power to decide Australia's position.
Australia's major newspapers reported that Gillard had wanted to vote against the motion but faced a revolt from her most senior colleagues. Her office would not immediately comment on that, but various media reports suggest Australia may abstain.
Australia, which becomes a U.N. Security Council member next year, usually strongly sides with the U.S. and Israel over the Middle East peace process.