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Why the French differ with Obama over Palestine

Sarkozy calls for observer state status at UN, while Obama urges more negotiations.

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A Palestinian woman holds a sign picturing U.S. President Barack Obama during a protest against U.S. policies towards the Palestinians, ahead a visit by senior US envoys, in the West Bank city of Ramallah on September 7, 2011. (Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)

LONDON — There were no public surprises at the U.N. Wednesday.

President Obama poured a bucket of ice water on the Palestinian bid to have the Security Council recognize Palestine as a state. “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N.,” he told the General Assembly, as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas held his head in his hands.

Speaking an hour later, French President Nicolas Sarkozy respectfully, and pointedly disagreed. He called for the Palestinians to become "an observer state," similar to the status the Vatican holds at the U.N. Sarkozy also called for a fixed timetable of negotiations to reach a final peace agreement with Israel in one year.

Behind the scenes, representatives of the Quartet, possibly the most ineffectual group in the history of diplomacy (can you name its members without going to google?), were working hard to get everyone to agree a scenario that would allow Abbas to save face by submitting his bid for statehood to the Security Council and then having the council lose the bid in procedure for a very long time, while the Quartet: The U.N., E.U., U.S.and Russia, figure out how to get negotiations going again.

Wednesday's doings in New York underscored the very strong differences between not just the U.S. and France, but between the U.S. and Europe when it comes to the way forward in finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

At one level they are differences born in the mundane realities of domestic politics. Obama and Sarkozy both face elections next year. Both have a vested interest in dealing with the issue in a way that will positively effect their electorates.

America's Jewish community is politically aware and very active. For Obama that meant using his speech to remind the General Assembly that "Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it. Israel's citizens have been killed by rockets fired at their houses and suicide bombs on their buses." The president added, "The Jewish people carry the burden of centuries of exile, persecution, and the fresh memory of knowing that 6 million people were killed simply because of who they were."

France, on the other hand has a sizeable and well-established Arab minority. They also vote. Which may be part of the reason he addressed these remarks to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, "Listen to the cry of the youth in the Arab Spring," Sarkozy said. "They shouted, 'Long live liberty!' They didn't shout, 'Down with Israel!'" Sarkozy added, "You cannot stand still while the wind of freedom and democracy blows through your region."

But beyond politics there are intense differences at street level between America and Europe on the subject of Palestine and Israel. The online polling organization YouGov recently conducted a survey in Britain, France and Germany about the prospect of Palestinian statehood.

Asked "Do you think that the Palestinians have a right or do not have a right to their own state?" Eighty-four percent of Germans, 82 percent of the French and 66 percent of Britons answered yes. Around 5 percent said no, the rest were undecided.

Asked, "Do you think your government should vote in favor or against the U.N. resolution supporting recognition of a Palestinian state alongside Israel, 76 percent of Germans, 69 percent of French and 59 percent of Britons said vote in favor. Once again, the bulk of the other responses were undecided.

What is most interesting is that this is not a party political issue, if the British results are anything to go by. The 59 percent figure in favor of U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood reflects opinion in all three major parties.

I have not found similar polling in the U.S. but it is hard to imagine support for a Palestinian state anywhere near these levels.

It is likely that the views in Europe's big three countries are echoed across the EU. Certainly in Spain, where the process that led to the Oslo Agreement began, there is deep frustration at what is seen as America's blind support of the government of Netanyahu.

Lluis Bassets of the country's newspaper of record, El Pais, attacked Netanyahu in Thursday's paper for breaking "the architecture of alliances going back six decades." He praised Abbas's, "peaceful and legal ways" of conducting himself. Bassets wonders how the international community can turn away from those Palestinians who "wield the olive branch and not the gun."

He concludes, "This places the U.S. and Israel in a quandary."

Basset's conclusion about America's quandary is echoed by Christine Bergmann of Deutsche Welle, "The Americans, for so long, have been seen as the decisive power that can bring an end to the Middle East conflict, are now no longer alone in determining the situation. On the world stage, the balance has shifted."

How it has shifted and to whom is unclear.The Palestinian statehood question is under discussion today because of the U.N. meeting. But in a month's time? It is instructive to read the German papers this morning to see just how events at the U.N. are playing. Hardly at all is the answer.

The Pope — a German — is visiting Berlin today. And that little matter of Greece and the euro zone crisis dominate the front pages along with the breakup of REM and the execution of Troy Davis in Georgia.

But Bergmann is correct that attitudes are shifting. Die Zeit, Germany's most widely read newsweekly, and long a friend of Israel, in an unsigned article today writes: "Israel has been the only democracy in the Middle East, and yet it has tried to solve the conflict with the Palestinians by oppression, has responded to terror with injustice." It concludes, "There are reasons to vote out of solidarity with Israel against recognition of Palestine. But the Israelis have to realize how high the price is to deny a people something they deserve."

Whether America is losing its ability to shape the resolution of the conflict is open to question. But Obama's electoral timetable cannot be reconciled with Sarkozy's demand for agreement to be reached within a year. 

What is absolutely clear is that on the question of Palestinian statehood, pressure is growing on this side of the Atlantic for it to happen much sooner than America — and Israel — would like. 

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/europe/110922/why-the-french-differ-obama-over-palestine