Coalition of the opposing: Why these 9 countries voted against Palestine at the U.N.

November 30, 2012

The red countries voted against admitting the Palestinian Authority as a non-member observer state at the United Nations on Nov. 29, 2012. Click to enlarge. (Max Fisher -- The Washington Post)

Nauru, a remote and impoverished Pacific island nation, is the world's smallest sovereign country by population. It has tried and failed to build an economy based on, among other things, "offshore-banking schemes and providing Australia with refugee-detention services." On Thursday, Naura joined the United States, the world's richest and most powerful country, as part of a small and somewhat oddball coalition of nine United Nations member-states that voted against recognizing the Palestinian Authority as a non-member observer state.

That nine-country block played a mostly symbolic role in the U.N. vote; an overwhelming majority of the United Nations, 138 nations, voted for the recognition, with 41 abstaining. But it's worth examining those nine, who they are, why they may have opposed, and what it says about the Israel-Palestine peace process. Here, from America to Nauru, is the list of "no" votes (the states are also highlighted in red in the map above):

United States: Says it subverts peace process

The United States opposes any Palestinian efforts toward statehood that go outside of, and thus subvert, the U.S.-led Israel-Palestine peace process. Washington would prefer to see Israel and Palestine putting all of their efforts through the diplomatic peace process. The thinking is that a durable peace can only be achieved by direct agreement between Israelis and Palestinians. The United States, in backing Israel, also ensures that it will retain leverage and credibility with the Israeli government, which it needs to retain its ability to bring the Israelis to the negotiating table.

Israel: Reduces Israeli role in peace process, could grant Palestinians ICC access

Israel's position is largely that of the United States in viewing Palestinian efforts outside of the formal peace process as counterproductive. The Palestinian Authority, by going through the United Nations rather than the peace process, is also choosing a path that has far less Israeli involvement. It also moves the Palestinian Authority closer to the ability to register claims with the International Criminal Court, potentially including Israeli military operations in Gaza and the West Bank, which could be problematic for Israel.

Canada: Supports Washington's Israel-Palestine strategy

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, a member of the conservative party, has been particularly supportive of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Ottawa closed its embassy in Iran earlier this year, calling the country a state sponsor of terrorism. In response to Thursday's U.N. bid, the Canadian government has recalled its ambassador to the United Nations, Israel, and the Palestinian authority, and says it is "reviewing its relationship" to the third of those three.

Czech Republic: Very pro-Israel, "closer to the U.S. than the EU"

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier this year that "Israel has no better friend in Europe than the Czech Republic," which Thursday was the only European country to vote no. Here's a snippet from a good Reuters explainer on the two big factors here: the Czech Republic's support of Israel, and more broadly its tendency to conduct foreign policy more in line with the United States than with the rest of the European Union.

Prague's support for the Jewish state also reflects an ongoing push by Czech centre-right politicians to build stronger ties with Washington and the euro-sceptic tendency of the two main ruling parties, Necas's Civic Democrats and Top 09.

... The opposition Social Democrats take a more mainstream European approach, while, partly staffed by dissidents who opposed the Communists in the Cold War era, the centre-right lobbied hard last decade for the establishment of a U.S. radar base and staunchly supported the U.S.-led wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 1948, then-Czechoslovakia broke a U.N. embargo, sending arms and supplies to Israel that may have helped turn that year's Arab-Israeli war.

Panama: Close with the United States, strong Jewish community

The Panama Canal is essential to the economies of both Panama and the United States, fueling close cooperation between the countries. And Panama has strong ties directly with Israel, as the Jerusalem Post explained in this 2010 article on Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli's visit with Israeli President Shimon Peres:

Panama will always stand with Israel, in appreciation of “its guardianship of the capital of the world – Jerusalem,” Martinelli told Peres at Beit Hanassi on Tuesday. 

Panama is a small country (population 3,400,000), “but it has a big heart for Israel,” said Martinelli, who is on a working trip to Qatar and Israel.

About 8,000 Panamanian citizens are Jews, and three of the ministers in Martinelli’s cabinet are Jewish, as are many senior government officials.

The Jewish community is fully integrated and has made a tremendous contribution to Panama’s cultural and economic life, Martinelli said.

The Pacific island nations: Nauru, Palau, Micronesia, and Marshall Islands

Excepting Israel, fully half of the "no" votes came from these tiny island states in the West Pacific. Their story is a little more complicated. Other than Naura, they are all "associated states" with the United States, which means that they are sovereign but closely aligned with America, which administered them as a "trust territory" from World War II until 1986.

Separately, Israel has cultivated close ties with these West Pacific nations. A 2010 Washington Post foreign service story explained that the relationship "has given Israel a couple of dependable votes in the United Nations" and brings "a source of technical aid on agriculture, health and other issues" to the small Pacific islands.

"Israel is a minority in the Middle East and struggling to survive," said Micronesian President Emanuel Mori. "We are also out there. We have no enemies, only natural ones. Typhoons come, and we survive. Being surrounded by not-friendly neighbors, we kind of pity them."

Sitting at a seafood restaurant as stormy waves crashed onto the coastline, a familiar scene for the group, Mori said that Israel's early decision to support Micronesia's membership in the U.N. two decades ago helped cement the relationship.

So what does all of this mean? From the Israeli and American view, that the international coalition is so small does not augur well for Israel-Palestine peace process. But perhaps it also reflects the degree to which global opinion seems to be aligning in favor of the Palestinians – Europe's much-watched votes are moving slowly but decisively in that direction – and away from the U.S.-led peace process.

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