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Eastern Europe key battleground over Palestinian statehood

Image: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas; Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are lobbying Eastern Europeans ahead of an expected United Nations vote on Palestinian statehood.Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP file; Jim Hollander/Pool via Reuters
/ Source: The Associated Press

Warsaw and Prague might seem like unlikely battlegrounds in the Middle East conflict. Yet it suddenly matters — a lot — whether Poles, Czechs and others in the region align themselves with the Israelis or Palestinians.

Their votes will be crucial if the Palestinian leadership carries out a plan to bring a resolution on Palestinian statehood to the United Nations in September, and that has sparked intense diplomatic efforts in recent weeks by both Israelis and Palestinians to win them over to their side.

The Palestinians aim to win two-thirds support in the 192-member General Assembly at the United Nations — or 129 countries — and are now about 13 countries short of their target.

The vote will be largely symbolic, at least in the short run. The assembly's decisions aren't legally binding. That would require approval by the powerful Security Council, where the United States has indicated it will veto any Palestinian move in the absence of a negotiated peace deal.

Still, the Palestinians hope a resounding vote in their favor will isolate Israel and put heavy pressure on the Israelis to withdraw from captured territories claimed by the Palestinians. The prospect of an international embarrassment, coupled with fears that mass unrest could break out in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, has the Israelis deeply unnerved.

Swaying the undecided
With the stakes so high, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans visits soon to Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, while envoys are also working hard in the Czech Republic and Slovakia to make their case for opposing the Palestinian initiative in the expected U.N. vote.

Meanwhile, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has recently been to Hungary and Bulgaria, while one of his top advisers, Nabil Shaath, has visits planned to Armenia, Georgia and Moldova, countries that have never recognized Palestine.

Most of the world is already firmly in one camp or the other. The U.S. will support Israel, and most of the developing world, including Arab and Muslim countries, can be counted on to back the Palestinians — leaving very few countries that might still go either way at the U.N.

But countries like Hungary and Slovakia remain undecided, a reflection of complex historical ties they have to the Israelis and Palestinians.

Many of their citizens fled anti-Semitism before and during World War II, becoming some of the key founders of the state of Israel. And while Germany carried out the Holocaust, guilt lingers in much of Europe — including the East — over prewar anti-Semitism and cases of local collaboration with Nazi occupiers.

More critically, though, ties today remain shaped by the legacy of the communist era, when members of the Soviet Bloc strongly supported the Palestinians, arming them and recognizing a 1988 declaration of Palestinian statehood.

Yet Hana Amereh, a member of the PLO's powerful executive committee, said the Palestinians realize they cannot automatically count on their support today.

"Frankly speaking, we don't know how these countries will vote," Amereh said. "Of course some of them may backtrack if they come under pressure."

So the race is on for their support. Among the most crucial is Poland, according to Israel's ambassador in Warsaw, Zvi Rav-Ner. It is the largest of the new EU members and will hold the rotating EU presidency for six months starting July 1, a period when the bloc's policy on the Palestinian statehood initiative will take shape and when the U.N. vote is expected to take place.

Rav-Ner said Israel is focusing its efforts on Poland, which it sees as "one of the most senior countries in Europe," and other countries in the region that have chartered a pro-Israeli course since throwing off communism. Israel believes these countries are open to Israel's arguments that a unilateral Palestinian move at the U.N. will set back the peace process.

"This is what the Prime Minister Netanyahu will ask when he comes here — to oppose it (the resolution)," Rav-Ner said in an interview with The Associated Press in Warsaw. "He is going to places where we can talk sense."

It's all part of an Israeli attempt to build a "moral opposition" to the Palestinian resolution by winning over countries with political weight and moral standing, Rav-Ner said.

Outcome tough to predict
None of the eastern European countries have yet indicated how they will vote, an indication of the discomfort they feel at being asked to choose between two parties they consider friends.

Yet it's clear that some look askance at the Palestinian initiative, fearing it could derail the peace process. That raises the possibility that some could seek to avoid the question altogether by abstaining from a U.N. vote — an option that would not satisfy Israel.

Palestinian leaders says they are being forced to turn to the United Nations because of deadlock in the peace efforts.

A Polish government official told The Associated Press that Warsaw opposes the Palestinian U.N. gambit, fearing it will derail the peace talks, and still hopes the Palestinian leadership will rethink the wisdom of the move.

"Poland wants the peace talks to be continued and we think that any unilateral move would be counterproductive for that," said the official, who is familiar with discussions on the issue but spoke on condition of anonymity because Poland's government has not yet publicly stated its view on the issue.

The official said Poland has also not yet decided how it would vote at the United Nations, in part because it doesn't know how a Palestinian declaration would be worded.

Separately, the Foreign Ministry told the AP that Poland wants a common EU position on the matter and will seek to forge a compromise when it takes over the EU's rotating presidency. The EU is believed to be deeply divided, with countries like France and Britain more sympathetic to the Palestinians and Germany siding with the Israelis.

In one example of European opposition to the Palestinian initiative, the president of the EU parliament, Jerzy Buzek, a former Polish prime minister, said during a visit to the West Bank on Tuesday that it could be "dangerous" because it could complicate peace efforts.

The Palestinians appear to have a better chance of winning the support of Serbia, which will face huge pressure to support the Palestinian declaration due to its own diplomatic efforts over Kosovo, the former province that declared its independence in 2008.

Serbia is trying to keep as many countries as possible from recognizing Kosovo's independence in a similar vote at the U.N. — and that includes a sizable group of Arab nations.

"It's a question of numbers," said Bosko Jaksic, a prominent foreign policy analyst in Belgrade with the Politika daily. "If Serbia does not recognize Palestine, the next day over 20 Arab states will recognize Kosovo."

Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Dusan Stojanovic in Belgrade, Serbia, contributed to this report.