- Associated Press - Sunday, June 19, 2011

WARSAW, Poland — 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.

With the stakes so high, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans visits soon to Poland, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria, while envoys also are 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 recently has 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 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,” Ms. 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.

Mr. 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.

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