Palestine bid spotlights some unlikely kingmakers


With Friday’s Palestinian bid for statehood now official, the focus turns to the U.N. Security Council, and an array of unlikely kingmakers.

Gabon, Colombia, Bosnia-Herzogovina — these countries aren’t usually associated with Middle East diplomacy, but they happen to be on the U.N. Security Council this year, meaning their votes would determine whether the Palestinian application wins approval.

If it does, the U.S. plans to veto it, but President Barack Obama is anxious to avoid an action likely to inflame the Arab world. The council consists of five permanent members — China, Britain, France, Russia and the U.S. — and 10 rotating, nonpermanent ones which can expect to be wooed and pressured by both sides as the vote approaches.

“It’s the luck of the draw, the nature of the U.N., that these countries are sitting on the Security Council now,” said J. Peter Pham, director of the Africa center at the Atlantic Council in Washington. He said internal affairs — for instance Nigeria’s violence-prone Muslim-Christian divide, will play a role in how some votes are cast.

Palestinian leaders say two decades of negotiations with the Israelis have been fruitless and that a new approach is needed. The U.S., Israel and others say only negotiations, not a unilateral U.N. vote, can create a viable Palestinian state that won’t jeopardize Israel’s security.

The Palestinians would need nine of the 15 Security Council votes to accept their bid, and forecasts are difficult because member states have little to gain from making their intentions clear this early.

Bosnia, Colombia and Portugal have indicated they want to scrutinize the final text of the Palestinian bid. The West African countries of Gabon and Nigeria are even more reserved.

Pham expected Nigeria to side with the Palestinians and Gabon to save its decision to the last minute, although he noted that it has sought strong ties to the U.S., which would give the Obama administration some clout.

The Palestinians expect support from several rotating Security Council members, including emerging powerhouses Brazil, India, and South Africa, and from Lebanon, an Arab country with a large Palestinian refugee population.

If those votes hold, and Russia and China maintain their support, the Palestinians would have a strong base but would need backing from some of the undecideds for their audacious challenge to the Middle East status quo.

Germany says peace talks, not a U.N. “upgrade,” are what’s needed. The Portuguese public, preoccupied their economic crisis, haven’t given the issue much thought. Bosnia’s leaders told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who visited Bosnia in August looking for support, that no decision had yet been made.

But 15 Bosnian advocacy groups have signed a petition for Palestinian statehood, and on Friday, 200 Palestinians rallied in Sarajevo, waving flags and chanting.

“We just hope one day we will also have a country, a home, just like everybody else in the world,” said Afane Imad, 55, a Palestinian living in Bosnia since 1976. “Now we are the only people under occupation on this globe. If I want to visit my family down there, I have to seek approval from Israeli authorities. Why?”

But the legacy of the 1992-95 Bosnian war means the country faces a sensitive choice. Bosnia’s Muslims and Catholic Croats may align themselves with the Palestinians, while Serbs are expected to support Israel.

Colombia, one of two Latin American countries on the council, has said it will likely abstain. On Wednesday its president, Juan Manuel Santos, told the General Assembly the conflict could only be resolved by direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

Colombia’s case is an example of how issues entirely unrelated to the Middle East can play a role. Santos wants to improve relations with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and other Latin American nationalists, but doesn’t want to join their anti-American bandwagon.

“He’s made an effort to get close to Chavez and to the Latin American nationalists, but at the same time the U.S. market is vital to Colombia’s economic prospects, so he doesn’t want to stray too far,” said Larry Birns, director of the Council on Hemispheric Affairs in Washington. He said voting against Palestinian statehood “would earn great gratitude from Washington,” and the Obama administration was using all the leverage it could muster.

The calendar also plays a role. Five of the rotating members — including Brazil and Lebanon, expected to favor the Palestinian resolution — complete their terms on the Security Council at the end of the year, after which the makeup of the council would be substantially different.