BRUSSELS – Europe, its global influence waning by the day, has long wished for more of a voice in a Middle Eastern diplomatic arena dominated by the U.S.
That wish is now being granted, in a limited way: The position of key European nations could determine the impact of the Palestinians' plan to ask the United Nations to recognize a Palestinian state at its September annual meeting.
The issue emerged Wednesday during a European tour by President Barack Obama, who repeated his recent days' call on the Palestinians to change course.
Speaking at a joint news conference in London with British Prime Minister David Cameron, Obama said that "for the Palestinians to take the United Nations route, rather than the path of sitting down and talking with the Israelis, is a mistake."
Cameron was tellingly noncommittal, saying it was too early to decide: "We want to discuss this within the European Union and try to maximize the leverage and pressure the European Union can bring on both sides to get this vital process moving."
The U.S. can veto a Security Council resolution on Palestine membership, which the U.N. Charter requires. The Palestinians plan to then go to the General Assembly, which cannot alone grant membership under normal procedures. A murky outcome looms — suggesting the symbolic aspect of the maneuver will be key.
In this sense, Europe has a swing vote of sort: Without its support a resolution could more easily be dismissed as nothing new, a result of the automatic anti-Israel majority in the General Assembly; but a pro-Palestinian groundswell by major European nations with deep ties to Israel, such as Britain and France, could make the event a watershed and provide tail wind to talk of boycotts and mass protests against Israel.
EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton acknowledged Wednesday that the Palestine issue was now on the table. "It will be individual countries in the General Assembly who will make their decisions," she said.
Europeans face a choice between substance and process: Most favor giving the Palestinians full statehood — but, like the Americans, they prefer negotiations to get there.
The Palestinians, however, seem to have given up on negotiations, at least with the current Israeli government. And in a sentiment shared by many in Europe, they are fed up with Israel's continuing construction of Jewish homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas Israel occupied in 1967 and which the Palestinians claim.
From conversations with officials and what public statements have been made, the following picture emerges: Spain seems set to vote in favor of the Palestinians, as are Ireland and possibly Norway. France, too, has indicated it would support Palestinian statehood if peace talks do not restart by September. Britain is wavering and has suggested it would contemplate a "yes" vote if Israel did not do more to enable talks to resume.
As Europeans wrestle with the issue, they bump up against a host of other powerful concerns, all pointing in different directions: Relations with the awakening Arab world, ghosts of the Holocaust that lend Israel lingering moral sway, and the very role of Europe in a world increasingly turning its attention to the concerned with developing powers in Asia and elsewhere.
And they are being lobbied by all sides.
Earlier this month, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu flew to Paris and London, two capitals where he heard there was a chance his hosts would vote for Palestine.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy was clearest, telling the weekly newsmagazine L'Express during that visit that if talks between Israel and the Palestinians don't resume over the summer, France will help promote international recognition of a Palestinian state. "The idea that we have time is a dangerous idea. We must finish," Sarkozy said.
And Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki said Wednesday that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was also planning another European trip himself. "We concentrate also on Europe ... They said they will recognize the Palestinian state when time is appropriate. We are telling them now that now is the appropriate time."
Sharon Pardo, chairman of European Studies at Ben-Gurion University, likened the situation to the one created by the 2008 declaration of independence by the Serbian province of Kosovo, which divided opinion in Europe and around the world.
"But the majority of EU member states will vote in favor eventually," Pardo said.
A French diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed with that assessment, saying that if nothing moves on talks by September most European nations will likely vote for the Palestinians.
Germany — widely considered Israel's best friend in Europe — is certain to vote against, as will Italy. German Chancellor Angela Merkel has said an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians is "more urgent than ever" — but insists unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state would not be a constructive step.
One major concern, said an EU diplomat, was fear that a yes vote, depending on how a resolution was worded, would be interpreted as accepting the Palestinians' terms — meaning a state on all the lands Israel captured in 1967, including the hotly contested eastern sector of Jerusalem.
That would set up confrontation with Israel. In his speech to the U.S. Congress Tuesday, Netanyahu said Jerusalem would never be divided and ruled out a return to the pre-1967 lines.
Another complication is a fear that the maneuver is fundamentally flawed since the General Assembly cannot normally grant membership. Legal arguments, procedural machinations and a vague result seem in the offing. One possibility being examined by the Palestinians is asking the General Assembly for observer status for Palestine as a "nonmember state" — which the wider body is authorized to grant.
Meanwhile, some European countries have been upgrading the status of the Palestinians' diplomatic representation in their respective capitals, signaling their attitudes toward a possible independent state.
In March, Britain upgraded the status of Palestinian representation in London, recognizing it as a full diplomatic mission, just short of a full-fledged embassy, rather than its previous status as a delegation. This month, Italy did the same.
Palestinian government spokesman Ghassan Khatib said he thought "upgrading was a message, and an indicator for the support that can develop into recognition."
That prospect creates anguish beyond the diplomatic in Israel — which is psychologically conflicted on Europe, both eager to belong to the European club and distrustful of Europe's intentions.
One fear in Israel is that Europe will eventually take a leading role in a movement to boycott the Jewish state, especially over its settlement policies. That could be disastrous for a country for whom the European Union is a major trade partner.
According to the most recent government figures, European nations bought $18.9 billion worth of Israeli imports last year — about a third of the total and slightly higher than the U.S. They accounted for 45 percent of Israel's $59 billion of imports. European nations accounted for more than 2 million tourists, more than three times the number that arrived from the U.S. and 10 times all of Asia.
Israel also has a type of associate status with the European Union which enables close cooperation on research and in other areas — and it participates in European sporting contests and cultural events like the Eurovision Song Festival, where its three victories over the years each brought outpourings of national joy.
A European setback at the United Nations would strike hard at the sense among Israelis that theirs is a quasi-European country, and deepen a common perception that almost everyone except for Washington is against them.
Dan Perry reported from Jerusalem. Angela Charlton in Paris, Juergen Baetz in Berlin, Bjorn Amland in Oslo, Cassandra Vinograd in London and Alessandra Rizzo in Rome contributed to this report.