Recognizing Palestine

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A Palestinian solidarity rally in Gothenberg, Sweden. (Photo: Averater / Wikimedia Commons)

In his recent meeting with President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he was “committed to the vision of peace for two states for two peoples.” That sounds nice. But if he’d been pressed, Netanyahu might have admitted that the two states he had in mind were Israel and the United States, not Israel and Palestine.

After all, Netanyahu has done everything possible to demonstrate that he’s not interested in negotiating a two-state solution with Palestinian representatives. The most recent example is the go-ahead given to new construction in the Givat Hamatos neighborhood of Jerusalem, across the Green Line, which will make it more difficult to share the city with a Palestinian state. Over the summer, the Netanyahu government annexed nearly 1,000 acres of West Bank territory. And then there was the disproportionate use of force against Gaza, which left more than 2,000 people dead and the equivalent of the population of Boston homeless.

Despite all of these recent setbacks, a majority of Israelis continue to believe in a two-state solution, and that goes even for the supporters of the right-wing Likud Party. At the same time, a majority of Israelis no longer believe that their prime minister is committed to such a resolution.

Netanyahu aside, most Israelis are fervent pragmatists. They don’t support a two-state solution out of idealistic sympathy for the Palestinian cause. Rather, Israelis understand that the laws of demographics—a higher birth rate among Palestinians than Israeli Jews—will make Jews a minority in their own state by 2025. Allowing Palestinians to form a separate state is, to put it bluntly, an internationally legitimate form of ethnic cleansing. It would achieve what partition did for India and Pakistan: create two more homogenous entities. Israel’s survival as a Jewish state depends on the negotiation of a two-state solution.

And yet, despite this obvious self-interest, the Netanyahu government has refused to compromise, in part because there are political actors in his administration even more intransigent than Netanyahu himself. The sticking points include the status of Jerusalem, land swaps that would compensate Palestine for the territory seized by Israeli settlers, and the right of Palestinians to return to land that they owned before the expulsion in 1948. As the more powerful side in the negotiations, Israel has been playing hardball, waiting for the Palestinians to buckle.

It’s absurd, of course, to imagine that a state and a non-state can engage in fair negotiations—unless the non-state has some additional leverage that can compensate for all the advantages the state enjoys. Kosovo, for instance, had the support of the United States and, as importantly, a European Union that could use membership as a carrot to push Serbia to the table to make concessions. Kurdistan, the northern part of Iraq, has used its relative stability and its current role in the fight against ISIS to achieve de facto statehood.

Palestine does not enjoy any of those advantages. But its weakness, paradoxically, has been a kind of strength. The Palestinians have been perpetual underdogs, even as they have acquired quasi-control in Gaza and with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank. Palestinians who live in those areas have at least some semblance of self-determination, even if it is illusory. Palestinians elsewhere don’t even have that. Without a real state, no one will stand up for all the Palestinians scattered throughout the region—in Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, and elsewhere.

For the last couple decades, the most likely route to statehood for Palestine was through negotiations with Israel, usually brokered by third parties like Norway or the United States. But there is another path to statehood that does not go through Israel. Quite a few countries have already recognized Palestine as a state—134 of them, actually. That’s a lot more than Taiwan (21), more even than Kosovo (108). But most of the countries that have recognized Palestine don’t have much economic or diplomatic pull.

That’s about to change.

A new center-left government recently took over in Sweden and immediately announced its intention to recognize Palestine. If it follows through on this pledge, which is likely, it will be the first European country, as a member of the EU, to recognize Palestine. The Swedish foreign minister was blunt in anticipating objections from Washington: “The USA doesn’t decide our policy,” Margot Wallström said. A conservative member of the Swedish parliament has countered that the government must go through the country’s advisory council on foreign affairs. But the new government hadn’t made a unilateral declaration—it had simply signaled a future action, which would follow the necessary protocol.

Even before the international media had digested the Swedish announcement, the UK parliament voted by a large margin—274 to 12—to recommend recognition as well. The UK government isn’t likely to take that step under its current political leadership, but the Labor Party might well be in charge after the May 2015 elections.

Lest you think this was a purely partisan effort, listen to Richard Ottaway, the Conservative chairman of the foreign affairs select committee. He told his parliamentary colleaguesthat Israel’s annexation of 950 acres of the West Bank this summer “outraged me more than anything else in my political life. It has made me look a fool and that is something I deeply resent.” Even the British ambassador to Israel, Matthew Gold, took pains to warn the Netanyahu government indirectly “about the direction of public opinion in Britain and beyond Britain in the absence of progress towards peace.”

Meanwhile, the French government is reportedly mulling a recognition move of its own.

Israel might ultimately care as little about the attitudes of “old Europe” as Donald Rumsfeld did around the invasion of Iraq. But Israel can’t ignore the increasing impatience of its chief supporter, the United States. Immediately after Netanyahu’s meeting last week with Obama, the White House issued a statement declaring that the prime minister’s recent moves “call into question Israel’s commitment to a peaceful negotiated settlement with the Palestinians.”

European recognition won’t magically transform the Palestinian state into a universally recognized entity any time soon. But it does strengthen Palestinian moves to strike off on their own.

One of the first signs of Palestinian unilateralism came two years ago when Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, called on the United Nations to “issue a birth certificate of the reality of the State of Palestine.” The UN General Assembly voted by a large margin to grant Palestine non-member observer status. Only nine countries voted against the resolution: Canada, the Czech Republic, Israel, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Panama, Palau, and the United States.

This win at the UN opened up a wide variety of options for the Palestinians: they could suddenly join 60 UN organizations and agencies. But instead of pushing for these perquisites of UN membership, the Palestinians decided instead not to overly irritate Israel so that they could secure the release of more than 100 long-term prisoners. Last April, however, Abbas changed tactics and announced his intention to join 15 conventions and treaties, including the Geneva Conventions, conventions against torture and genocide, and conventions guaranteeing the rights of women and the disabled.

But even this effort to circumvent Israel and acquire all the trappings of a state is, after the recent Gaza war, not enough to satisfy an increasingly radicalized population. A post-war poll indicates that 72 percent of Palestinians favor an armed intifada against Israel. Meanwhile, a number of analysts have urged the Palestinian Authority to dissolve itself—and stop playing a role in policing Palestinians on behalf of Israel. Frustration with the Netanyahu government is generating a range of different responses.

At the moment, the United States and much of the world is focused on the threat of ISIS. As a result, Secretary of State John Kerry doesn’t have time to devote to yet another round of pleading with Israelis and Palestinians. But if anything, ISIS is a reminder of what happens when legitimate grievances—those of Sunnis in Syria and in Iraq—are ignored. Strong, democratic states are an antidote to ISIS-style extremism. As such, a strong Palestinian state is in the interests of Israel, the United States, and the entire Middle East.

At his meeting with Obama, Netanyahu said that it was time to “think outside the box.” The Palestinians, by pursuing statehood by all means necessary, are doing just that, as are several European countries. It’s time for Israel to do the same.

John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus.

  • kalpal

    Since Palestine has no borders, legislative body, Judiciary, currently elected officials or much else it does not matter who recognizes it. Any notion that Israel is the sole obstructive power involved is held and espoused by an ignoramus of galactic if not universal proportions. Abbas is being coerced by aides who feel certain that any day now Israel will fall apart and its entire Jewish population will hither to parts unknown abandoning house and home. These are the same intellectuals who insist that Hamas has defeated Israel in each of the military actions in the past. Those same superbly educated wunderkinder have never used a dictionary to learn the meaning of words like genocide, Nazi et al.

    There was a time when Fatah was socialist and included women till Islam reared its supremely ugly visage and put women back into being beasts of burden and asserted that Allah who has kept Muslims for almost 1,000 years abysmally poor and grossly ignorant can only bend human to his will by employing homicidal maniacs as his sole earthly agents.

    • Carl Freeman

      Kalpal – “Any notion that Israel is the sole obstructive power involved is held
      and espoused by an ignoramus . . .”
      It’s true that rather than just one obstructive power, there are in fact two – Israel and
      the United States.
      In the I/P dispute nuclear-armed Israel’s military and economic strength is overwhelming and it calls all the shots. Chatter about Palestinian political and social shortcomings is a weak
      attempt to divert attention from the glaring injustice of the status quo.

      • kalpal

        So in fact you feel that and and all Palestinians are entirely absolved of any guilt and/or blame in this conflict? It appears that you too belong in the pantheon of ignoramuses. Israel’s military might exists solely because of the existential jeopardy Jewish lives are under as residents of the region. I know that the world finds Jewish lives to be worthless if not simply downright cheap. jews have been murdered for many centuries in many countries as a form of sport or emotional outlet for frustration.
        Peace is possible between Israel and its neighbors when Islam ceases to declare that Jews are the product of pigs and apes and are destined to be massacred by “good” Muslims.
        Were you at all aware of world history you would turn scarlett with shame at your own abysmal ignorance.
        BTW ask Muslims why Allah’s patrimony to the vast majority of them is miserable poverty and massive ignorance?

        • Carl Freeman

          There you go again kalpal, ranting on about peripheral matters.
          The State of Israel alone is responsible for its occupation of Palestinian territory. Its mistreatment of the territory’s inhabitants is a violation of its obligations as an occupying power under the fourth Geneva Convention.

          • kalpal

            So the UN’s vote in 1947 to permit a Jewish state to exist in the space Israel currently occupies is a peripheral matter? Attacks by Hamas and other groups intended on murdering Israel’s Jews are a peripheral matter? The essential matter is that Jews must neither defend themselves nor retaliate against attacks because Jews never had any right to do so in the past so there is no reason to assume such rights these days.

            Had you ever taken the time to study history, I assume you did attend a school of some sort, you would know how abysmally ignorant you are. Please stop wasting my time till you know something rather than believe in drivel and espouse it.

          • Carl Freeman

            The State of Israel has occupied Palestinian territory militarily and colonized it illegally since 1967.
            Israel signed the fourth Geneva Convention. Why doesn’t it honour its signature?

          • kalpal

            If you wish to communicate further I insist that you learn the region’s history and stop pushing drivel as though it were fact. Go away and don’t come back until you actually know something.

          • Carl Freeman

            International law is not drivel kalpal.

            You seem to find it easier to hurl abuse than to respond to a simple question: Why does the State of Israel refuse to honour its commitment under the fourth Geneva Convention?

          • kalpal

            Why does the USA torture people in the exact same manner that the USA prosecuted at the end of WWII?

            Somehow you seem to hold as a tenet of faith that Israel must not protect itself from those who assert the right to eradicate Israel and to massacre all Jews upon the face of the earth. This is my last response to you since you you hold baseless beliefs to be self evident truths you are no longer worth my time. I reiterate that you need to educate yourself.

          • Carl Freeman

            Let me remind you kalpal that you seem unable to explain why the State
            of Israel signed an international instrument but fails to observe its
            strictures. You offer the example of the US acting similarly. Are you
            suggesting then that to disregard international law is OK – or simply
            that the US and Israel are exceptional cases?

          • kalpal

            Allow me to remind you that neither Fatah nor Hamas are signatories nor do either of them ever avoids civilian casualties. In fact hamas seeks to massacre as many Israelis as possible when it indiscriminately fires missiles into Israel. Israel does take note that hamas forbids the construction of bomb shelters for the citizens of gaza and intentionally uses them as human shields. Hamas does have shelters for its own forces whose lives are precious unlike the citizens Hamas uses as human shields.
            I am perturbed by your insistence that your faith based beliefs only apply to behavior by Americans or Israelis but not ever to hamas. Are you really that ignorant and that much of a nincompoop?
            Israel made persistent efforts to inform Gaza’s citizenry of what was going to happen and when. Hamas forced the locals to remain as human shields because Hamas needed a PR boost. Did you at all notice that the Arab street did not demonstrate during this war?
            Surely you approve of the citizens of Gaza been exploited in this fashion by hamas and you must also hope that more gazans die as hamas bombards Israel and Israel retaliates. You are the bloodthirsty one along with your hamas buddies. It is you who is the evil scum you you wish to rant about. You are disgusting. Go away and learn some history. I deplore willfully ignorant fools and you are a massively ignorant fool. Why did your parents dislike you so much that they avoided getting yuou an education?

          • Carl Freeman

            The only virtue, kalpal, to be found in your anonymous logorrhoea seems
            to be its consistency. Each time you post you ignore the questions
            raised or deliberately misconstrue them, and then rant on about
            something else. Finally, hiding behind your pseudonym, you indulge in
            personal abuse. What an odd way of pursuing a discussion for someone claiming to value education.

          • kalpal

            So I am required to empower you to frame a BS discussion/debate based on a Geneva convention which seems to mean to you a contract to permit an unscrupulous batch of ignorant Muslims to commit a massacre without defense or retaliation? I guess you are unable to read and comprehend English. Go away and get an education and then come back and explain to the entire planet why you have the power to frame all discussions based on your inability to comprehend history and reality. Don’t bother writing again. At least not until you get rid of your PhD in BS.

          • Carl Freeman

            OK kalpal. You’ve said what you believe the fourth Geneva Convention means to me. Now kindly enlighten us as to what it means to an anonymous, abusive, but highly educated person like yourself.

          • roberthstiver

            Carl Freeman, you’re right on! Thanks. Viva Palestine!

          • kalpal

            I now challenge you to justify to the world both the Islamic State and Iran. As soon as you have satisfied the entire population of the planet with your justifications I will chortle at your stupidity and ignorance and continue to ignore you. My, but your parents must have deplored giving birth to such an idiot offspring.

          • Carl Freeman

            You “continue to ignore” by ranting on – off-topic.

            Polite reminder: The original subject here is the recognition of Palestine and the growing diplomatic isolation of Israel.

          • kalpal

            Since there is as of yet no state called Palestine there is no need to worry much about recognizing that nonexistent state entity. The world will forever deny that Jews are are anything more than scapegoats in the same fashion that Islam denies females are anything more than beasts of burden. Go away, you ignorant twerp and get an education.

          • dubinsky

            Both the Israelis and the US accepted the emergence of a future Palestinian state decades ago.

            Not an issue.

            what is in dispute is whether the pretense that such a state exists when plainly it does not might be of some utility

          • kalpal

            Since the territory was Jordanian, Syrian or Egyptian it was not Palestinian. There was not ever a nation called Palestine. If you believe there was, link to me to its founding, its history, its diplomatic presence in other nations, its judiciary, its legislature. Show the entire world Palestine’s venerable history as a nation. Show us its founders, its historians, its published literature. You faith and belief does not constitute fact.

          • John

            Kalpal, The UN vote was only in the General Assembly, not the Security Council so isn’t technically decisive. Besides it was a vote on a proposal not a fixed plan. As for your other comments, Why in the 80s did Israel allow the Muslim Brotherhood (under Yassin who Israel eventually killed when Hamas became too powerful) which became Hamas have licence to collect funds, build religious schools and mosques undermining Fatah. It was the old divide and conquer game. Further the Israeli government has on numerous occasions stated that a Palestinian state is a no go. Israeli activity in Palestine is nothing but a political ideological racist con game.

          • kalpal

            Not at all sure that only security coucil votes are of consequence. Surely the Arab nations that attacked Israel the day after israel declared itself a nation felt that there was something there worth destroying?
            Israel backed up Yassin precisely because he was doing good for his people. Had Israel known that the charter drafted by Hamas insisted that Israel must be utterly eradicated and that all Jews on the face of the earth must die, there would not have been any support of Yassin’s efforts.
            Strangely enough I have heard many times that the majority of Israelis are in favor of a 2 state solution but you heard a few state that it is a no go and since you want that to be the representative notion then so it surely represent the sum total of all of Israel.
            There are some Americans who are sure that dark skin indicates a defective being and low intellect, do you then configure it that this is the sum total of the sentiments of all Americans?
            Simplistic viewpoints are espoused by those who need to damn an entire group by using such viewpoints to assure the world that the minority view covers the entire group. By this measure Obama’s family knew for a fact the day he was born that he would be elected president in 2008 and that it was important to create a false trail in 1962 that would permit him to appear to be American born. Anyone who knew America’s deep racism in 1962 would smile indulgently at such BS backward thinking but the simpleminded simpleton are sure that such forward thinking was common in the USA and the world in 1962.
            History and politics are both layered in complexity and encumbered by context. Neither is simplistic except for those who are ignorant yet are sure that their ignorance is every bit as valid as anyone else’s knowledge.

  • kalpal

    After the 1967 war Israel assumed that Arab nations would be ready to discuss a peace treaty and the conquered territories would be returned to Jordan, Egypt and Syria. As of that date no one had heard of a nation state called Palestine nor did anyone insist that one existed until the Arab League grasped that Israel would not easily be overrun militarily. It was at that point that the concept of a Palestinian state began its genesis. While I support the birth of a Palestinian State, I do not support Israel jeopardizing its future by carelessly taking it on faith that a Palestinian State would not permit and even encourage frequent attacks on the Israeli populace. Arafat explained ex[licitly why he was never going to compromise and he never did. Of course he knew full well that had he signed a treaty he would have been the beneficiary of the exact same treatment Anwar Sadat got at the hands of the Muslim Brotherhood.