Britain's Mixed Feelings

The Europeans see the unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood as a legitimate, nonviolent move toward (theoretical ) sovereignty.

President Barack Obama's state visit to Britain unfolded with an impeccably genteel schedule this week, from tea with the queen at Buckingham Palace to a photo opportunity with the new Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and a banquet where guests were served Windsor lamb and English wine. But amidst the jolly atmosphere and cucumber sandwiches, some serious Middle East business was being conducted.

Israel-Palestine was deemed important enough for special mention in the joint op-ed published by Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron in The Times on Tuesday. That piece highlighted the special, even "essential," relationship between the two countries (the U.K. public remains terribly conflicted about the transatlantic alliance, and the debate is trotted out with every major bilateral meeting ). Regarding the peace process, the op-ed emphasized that "we are unified in our support for a lasting peace between a secure Israel and a sovereign Palestine."

Nonetheless, the relationship itself is not at the top of the agenda right now. That space is reserved for Libya, where both the U.S. and the U.K. are now embroiled in a mission creeping into its third month, and are not exactly seeing eye to eye. Cameron was a leader of the initiative for military action, apparently embracing the Arab Spring as an opportunity to enhance his foreign affairs credibility, while Obama was far less enthusiastic but nevertheless was still expected to contribute more than his fair share of manpower, intelligence and surveillance.

But on Israel-Palestine, the American and British positions are closer. Foreign Secretary William Hague quickly welcomed Obama's speech last week highlighting the need for a Palestinian state to be based on the 1967 borders, and there's less distance between them over the issue of the Fatah-Hamas unity agreement than elsewhere in Europe.

Hamas' enthusiastic eulogizing of Osama bin Laden as a holy warrior put paid to any possibility of the U.S. softening its stance on dealing directly with the militant group, and the Americans don't want the EU to break rank. Close associates of Cameron and Hague say both men are consistently tough on the topic of Hamas, too, so the U.S. will want Britain to nudge the rest of Europe, which is far woollier on this issue, in what they see as a more resolute direction. It's significant that the latest statements from the EU's foreign affairs council on Palestinian unity this week don't make even passing mention of the Quartet's three conditions for dealing with Hamas - Hamas recognizing Israel, renouncing violence and respecting previous agreements.

But right now all this is theory, with the unity pact remaining shaky and many from all sides dubious as to whether it can ever develop into anything even approaching a unity government.

Where Britain's position becomes curiously unclear, and potentially diverges from that of the U.S., is on something for which the deadline is actually looming - the Palestinian intention to go to the UN to seek approval of a unilateral declaration of independence this September.

U.S. policy is straightforward. A negotiated settlement is the only acceptable way to go, and Obama will have no option but to vote against a UN motion if and when it happens.

Whatever Obama's personal feelings toward Netanyahu, who seems to have a talent for alienating American presidents, U.S. support for Israel goes far beyond personal chemistry, especially in an election year.

But the U.K. for its part is sending out conflicting messages, quite different from the enthusiastic cheerleading of other European actors such as France.

On one hand, Britain is apparently reluctant to endorse unilateralism. "I've been told at a senior level and in quite definitive language that the British are not going to support a universal declaration of independence," says a leading Arab lobbyist.

On the other, it has hinted that it will vote "yes" if no serious peace negotiations emerge. "It's very likely the U.K. will support it but avoid doing so until the last minute, taking cover in the pretense of a common European position," a senior Israeli diplomat told me.

Maybe the unique British experience over sovereignty in Northern Ireland could explain this apparent wobble, or perhaps there is a split in the leadership - some say that Hague believes a "yes" vote is the right thing to do, while Cameron's instincts may pull him in the other direction. "I think they are genuinely undecided," says one prominent Jewish leader, while complaining that Netanyahu's approach in his Washington appearances this week did nothing to help those lobbying Britain for a "no" vote.

"I don't remember it ever being so bad in terms of an Israeli government so lacking creativity and the willingness to help give its friends something to work with," he adds.

What's clear is that if Israel wants its European allies to vote against the resolution, it has to give them some incentive. Netanyahu's speech to Congress, for all its clever turns of phrase that were met with repeated ovations, didn't offer anything even approaching a political vision.

The U.K. has already upgraded the status of the Palestinian delegation in London, although the joke here is that all it amounts to is a better parking spot for the ambassador (whom diplomats have long addressed as "Your Excellency" anyway ).

The Europeans, not unreasonably, see the unilateral declaration as a legitimate, nonviolent move toward (theoretical ) statehood, in line with international law. And this is not a good time to oppose popular movements for national self-determination in the Middle East.

Symbols matter, whether it's the literal red carpet rolled out for Obama this week or acceptance of Palestine as a real country by the international community.

Daniella Peled is an editor at the Institute for War and Peace Reporting.