The United Nations General Assembly has voted to recognize Palestine as a "non-member observer state." For one German politician, Europe's lack of unity on the issue is a serious problem.
Few doubted that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would succeed in his bid. After the Palestinians were denied full UN membership last year, the least they could expect was to be upgraded to observer status. The Palestinian Authority has been pursuing this aim for months, and has now succeeded.
The Palestinians won a necessary two-thirds majority, with 138 of 193 states voting in favor, including Spain, France, and Italy. Meanwhile nine countries voted against, including Israel, the US, and Canada.
And there were 41 abstentions, including Germany and the UK. It was not an easy decision to make, said German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle, but he underlined that it was a carefully considered, balanced decision.
"On the one hand we see the justified desire of the Palestinians for their own state," he said. "But on the other side we recognize our special responsibility to Israel and to a peaceful and stable development in the region." The foreign minister went on to declare that though Germany supported a Palestinian state next to Israel, the country had doubts that Palestine's observer status at the UN was "beneficial at this point in the peace process."
Westerwelle said there was a fear that Abbas' bid would lead to a hardening of the fronts. "The decisive steps to true statehood can only be taken by negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians."
No European consensus
This declaration effectively stopped attempts to find a consensus in the European Union on the Palestinian question. In the past few weeks, the German government repeatedly considered voting against the Palestinian bid.
The fact that the EU could not agree on a policy was a serious problem, said Rolf Mützenich, foreign policy spokesman for Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD). He told Deutsche Welle that a "yes" from Germany would have been perfectly feasible. "I believe we must do everything we can to support the forces in Palestine that want a peaceful agreement with Israel and a fair two-state solution. And that is what President Abbas stands for."
Abstaining from the vote was the least that Germany could have done for the Palestinian president, Mützenich continued. The internal Palestinian conflict between Hamas and Fatah, which Abbas leads, was enough for him to deal with, he argued. "It would have been a fatal signal if on top of that he hadn't had the support of important European governments on the international stage, or even been weakened by them," he said.
Palestinians hope for more international support
Even if Abbas has not yet succeeded in gaining full membership for Palestine, the new observer status should smooth the Palestinians' way on to the international stage. With non-member observer status, Palestine can, for instance, appeal to international courts and sue Israel over its settlement policy.
Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi described Thursday's vote as a "turning point." She said she saw "the beginning of a new era for Palestine, and for our struggle for freedom, independence, the end of occupation, and the liberation of the land and the people."
Israel, on the other hand, sees Palestine's appeal to the UN as a unilateral breach of previous peace agreements, which stipulate that all outstanding issues must be dealt with at the negotiating table. But Abbas hopes that the new status will give peace talks a new impetus - he has announced that he wants to return to negotiations with Israel immediately.