On 2 December the French Assemblé nationale, the equivalent of the U.S. House of Representatives, adopted a resolution calling on the government of wildly unpopular President François Hollande to recognize Palestine as a state. The vote was presaged by a lengthy speech on the issue by socialist foreign minister and multi-millionaire Laurent Fabius, who declared that France would extend official recognition to Palestine two years hence if talks between Israeli and Palestinian negotiations continue to go nowhere (at present they’re not even talking).
The vote in France came on the heels of similar moves by the U.K., Irish, and Spanish legislatures. Most significantly of all, the government of Sweden at the end of October courageously broke ranks with the rest of western Europe and officially recognized Palestine, although the country’s foreign minister observed that the decision might have come ‘too late’ to do much good.
Needless to say, her view was not shared by all. Israel’s extreme right wing foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, a man who has called for the ‘transfer’ (read: expulsion) of Arab citizens of Israel to a future Palestinian state, was livid. He blasted the Swedes for their alleged ignorance of Middle Eastern relations, which he patronizingly remarked were ‘more complex than one of Ikea’s flat-pack pieces of furniture’.
The attitude of the United States towards recognition was expressed succinctly by Republican Senator John McCain in a recent interview with Euronews. Normally a strong opponent of President Obama’s foreign policy but almost certainly in lockstep with the administration in this case, he poured cold water on the idea that Washington might follow the Europeans’ lead. ‘Certainly it will never be United States policy’, remarked McCain when asked for his ‘take’ on the embryonic movement towards recognition by European states.
One thing is almost certain: the government of France will not be recognizing the state of Palestine before the end of 2016. Arbitrary deadlines have a poor record in Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, as those who remember the events of 2003 will know. In the wake of the rout of Saddam Hussein’s forces in Iraq U.S. President George W. Bush, backed up by the UN, European Union and Russia, tried his hand at Middle Eastern peacemaking. His contribution to the long list of failed attempts to knock Israeli and Palestinian heads together was the ‘Road Map to Peace’, which envisioned the resolution of the conflict by 2005.
The Road Map was stillborn, with Israel’s cabinet torpedoing it by attaching no less than fourteen ‘reservations’, while boldly claiming to have endorsed it all the same. Among the barely believable qualifications were an insistence on a change of Palestinian leadership (Yassir Arafat had by this stage reverted to bogeyman status), and the assertion that settlement activity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip was ‘not to be discussed’.
So was the French parliament’s gesture pointless? To answer this, I sought the opinion of a Palestinian former student of mine, and his response was more optimistic than I expected. Echoing Sweden’s foreign minister, his view was that it was ‘late but… still a good step on the right track’. Not surprisingly, he opposed the French government’s plan to give negotiations a last shot for a couple of years, arguing that European countries ‘have to follow Swedish official recognition, and that should be today’.
He’s right, of course. If European states are willing to recognize the independence of Kosovo in the face of vehement objections from Serbia, they ought to do the same for Palestine, despite the inevitable fury this would cause in Israel. Sadly, though, it’s almost inconceivable that any government in my country, the U.K., will mimic Sweden and, presumably, France. The fear of being labeled anti-semitic simply for supporting Palestinian rights is a powerful deterrent. Likewise Germany, the third big player in Europe, will surely hold out, for obvious historical reasons. So, while the ball has started rolling, it’s unlikely to get very far.