JERUSALEM — Israeli officials had long known that they would be on the losing end of the U.N. General Assembly’s vote on whether to grant Palestine official status as a non-member observer state. Palestinian officials months ago had announced that they’d gathered enough votes to win the declaration.
But it wasn’t till the final votes were cast Thursday that Israeli officials realized how lopsided the outcome would be. Most stinging of all was the decision by Germany, long one of Israel’s most dependable international supporters, to abstain rather than vote against the declaration.
“Germany has historically been one of our staunchest allies in Europe,” said a senior Israeli diplomat who agreed to discuss the issue only on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to a reporter. “It was truly a shock they would abstain.”
Perhaps no two countries in the world have a more tangled history than Germany and Israel, one that was born of the Holocaust, the extermination campaign by Nazi Germany that claimed the lives of 6 million Jews and prompted the flood of Jewish immigration from the rubble of World War II Europe to what became Israel.
In the decades since, Germany has paid more than $32 billion in war reparations to Israel or Israelis. The two countries have exchanged official visits on a fairly regular basis and, to mark Israel’s 60th anniversary, the German Cabinet held a joint meeting with its Israeli counterpart. Last year, Germany voted “no” on Palestine’s successful bid to join UNESCO, the U.N.’s cultural body.
Despite that history, there were signs in the past year that the German government had grown impatient with the unyielding stance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Jewish settlements in the West Bank. That finally was what drove Germany’s decision not to object to declaring Palestine an observer state, a German diplomat said at a background briefing in Jerusalem, the conditions for which required that he not be identified by name.
“Not only has Israel refused to consider even a partial freeze of the settlements to appease the Palestinians, they have refused to even discuss the issue,” the diplomat said. “Our decision at the U.N. was based on the widespread feeling that Israel had failed to make real steps towards peace, and that they had made a mockery of our past support.”
The impact of that decision was immediate. Once Germany had declared itself as abstaining ahead of the vote, one European country after another announced it would either vote for the Palestinian bid or abstain.
When the final tally was announced, only nine countries opposed the designation: Israel, Canada, the Czech Republic, Panama, the United States and four small Pacific Ocean island nations, all but one of which are former territories of the United States. Voting in favor were 138 countries, with 41, including Germany, abstaining.
“It was a slap in the face. A wakeup slap in the face – we hope,” said another senior Israeli diplomat who previously has worked in Europe and the United States. He asked to be quoted anonymously because Israeli officials had been ordered not to discuss what he termed “a stunning defeat.”
“None of our predictions expected such low numbers for us,” said the senior Israeli diplomat. “It’s true that in the Foreign Ministry people were saying, ‘We lost Europe.’”
France, Spain, Italy and Greece voted in favor of the declaration.
“Look, there is no question this is a diplomatic defeat for the United States, because we tried very hard to postpone (this vote) and push it off the agenda altogether,” Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, told the al-Monitor media site. “And one would assume that in the wake of a diplomatic setback, you do a lessons learned, a scrub, and you go back to some of the basics. Not just were the tactics right in trying to do this, was the strategy right?”
But Israel appeared unchastened by the outcome: On Friday, Israeli news outlets reported that the government intended to build 3,000 new housing units for settlers in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to show its defiance of the U.N. vote. The United States called the move “counterproductive.”
Frenkel is a McClatchy special correspondent. Twitter@sheeraf