There is a case to be made for Europe not recognising the Palestinian state, but is it a worthwhile one?
The following text is compiled from excerpts of a speech given by Daniel Levy at ECFR’s workshop “Recognizing a Palestinian State, Why Bother?”, held at the European Parliament, Brussels, 10 December 2014.
There is a case to be made for “don’t bother recognising Palestine”. Let’s be frank: this isn’t something that the Palestinian leadership is necessarily making a priority of. Palestinian civil society is somewhat divided on the issue – most activists tend to favour it but many are concerned it could limit Palestinian options. The Israeli government is clearly not enthusiastic about the idea. The Israeli centre-left opposition will publicly tell you not to recognise, although I’ll come back to that later on.
Recognition of the State of Palestine is not going to be a game-changer in and of itself.
So is this really about showing solidarity with the camp of liberal Zionist ‘do-gooders’ – for example, David Grossman, Amos Oz and other writers, former politicians, Ambassadors and ex-generals? No, it’s about more than that, but to understand why, a few misperceptions need to be clarified.
Recognition of the State of Palestine is not going to be a game-changer in and of itself. There is no direct causal line between recognition and the dawning of a new era in peace. But once recognition of Palestine is on the agenda, a decision has to be made. Signals have already been and will continue to be sent by the European Parliament and EU national parliaments when discussing the issue. And signals matter. In this case, sending the wrong signal can be especially counter-productive.
Three things should be acknowledged upfront about this vote. Firstly, this is a political vote by elected politicians and that is absolutely legitimate. It is a political decision that cannot be exclusively reached by wise people sitting around asking, “Well, what’s best for peace?” Some parties may have a constituency convinced of the justice of Palestinian statehood, others may cater to or encourage an Islamo-phobic constituency. Some may even be trying to shed an image of anti-Semitism – the supposition being that doing what the Israeli government asks of you then grants immunity from anti-Semitism – a notion I find to be both absurd and appalling. Nonetheless, it is legitimate to ask, domestic European politics aside, what might be the impact of a recognition vote on the prospects for peace and two states?
There is no direct causal line between recognition and the dawning of a new era in peace.
Secondly, Europeans have a well-worn, if justified, mantra when it comes to the peace process: “Europe should be a player, not only a payer.” Well, welcome to being a player! Being a player means taking decisions; decisions that not everyone is going to love, sometimes taking hard political choices.
The third acknowledgement is that Americans cannot do it alone. I would argue that the current US President, Barack Obama, has set this out quite thoughtfully, in his own way, on several occasions (not least of all in his March 2013 speech in Jerusalem). President Obama’s basic message, paraphrased, was something like: America is with Israel, whatever it does; but the rest of the world is losing patience with actions that undermine the prospects for peace and the more that happens the less able America will be in shielding Israel from the repercussions of destructive policies. Europeans, without being told it explicitly, should understand this to mean that there is no expectation to slavishly follow America’s position and that Europe’s greater freedom of action should sometimes be used to demonstrate to Israelis that there can be consequences for errant and illegal policies. Think back to the summer of last year, when the Americans were trying to get peace talks re-launched; the Palestinians got no settlement freeze, no terms of reference, and only a staggered and limited prisoner release.
The EU issued its guidelines regarding settlements, particularly in the context of Horizon 2020. This gave some important additional cover for the Palestinians to agree to the talks. The guidelines move was not requested by the Americans, nor was it blessed by them. But, in retrospect, it was greatly helpful to the Americans and to the efforts to launch peace talks, illustrating a productive US-EU division of labour.
So, what is the theory of positive change? How can a vote on recognition help advance peace?
Europeans have a well-worn mantra when it comes to the peace process: “Europe should be a player, not only a payer.”
The argument is premised on two claims. The first holds that the two-state outcome is not inevitable. It will not arrive in the world one day perfectly formed allowing us simply to await the day. It is a challenge; it takes work. The second claim holds that to understand the impasse in peace talks is to understand that the status quo is actually rather comfortable for Israel. This is a deeply asymmetrical conflict; Palestinians do not have basic rights under the status quo, while Israeli daily life is very bearable the vast majority of the time. If there are no costs for the occupation, and for the refusal to allow a Palestinian state to come into being, then Israel cannot be expected to act differently.
The argument has been made that if Europeans recognise Palestine then the Palestinians will have no incentive to negotiate. That argument should be turned precisely on its head – if we continue with “business as usual”, including but not limited to non-recognition, then we perpetuate a reality where the occupying power, in this case Israel, has no incentive to do anything differently.
So, finally, why bother recognizing Palestine? Three reasons rise above the rest:
Europeans can want two states more than the warring parties themselves, or at least more than a strong strand of opinion within both parties. On the Israeli side, there is a powerful and growing trend openly supporting greater Israel. One state, annexation. In the words of Likud’s Moshe Feiglin, “one state, one people, one land”. On the Palestinian side, two states is challenged both by the legitimate vision of one shared democratic state with equal rights for all, but also by those who would like to see Israel replaced entirely by Palestine.
Europeans can want two states more than the warring parties themselves, or at least more than a strong strand of opinion within both parties.For most Europeans, however, the best option seems to be two states. Many Europeans for very good reasons have a historical commitment to the idea of Israel but don’t like the idea of ethnic cleansing or apartheid and are understandably unenthusiastic about going through years of a South Africa-style anti-apartheid transition to a one state reality. But far more will have to be done to avoid that scenario – for the benefit of both Jewish-Israelis and of Palestinians. One thing to do will be to send some clear signals, such as recognition of Palestine.
Israel is at an important moment. The pro-annexation trend and drift towards extremism, including from within government, has been mentioned. The far-right is testing the water right now, testing whether they can get away with it. What Israelis have seen is that almost 50 years of occupation, including daily violations of international law, have not led to tangible repercussions from the international community including Europe (it does, however, lead to violence, which will be discussed later). So Israelis are asking themselves the question “really? Can’t we just stay here forever or annex the land and get away with it?” They’re taking the temperature on that.
There is an additional relevant aspect to the debate in Israel. A strand of Israeli thinking is asking whether they need Europe at all? The Israeli government’s position on Ukraine and Crimea, or rather the lack of one, was very noticeable. The Israeli right openly acknowledges that they envisage an Israeli future that may not be aligned with the Western democracies but rather with Russia, China and others, and frequently – even if inaccurately and offensively – attribute anti-Semitic motives to European criticism of indefensible Israeli policies. And so the question becomes: what signals do Europeans send in the context of this Israeli debate?
The choice of a European message matters, and it matters greatly.On the recognition question, for instance, centrist Israeli politicians publicly oppose European recognition but one must listen to the music and not only the words to get the whole story. If one listens to their responses whenever there is an act of recognition, one can hear them blame the policies of the Israeli far-right and of Prime Minister Netanyahu. They don’t focus on condemning Sweden or the British or French parliaments. Instead, they take advantage of such recognitions to win an argument with the Israeli public – namely that the current extremist policies are bad for Israel.
They are trying to challenge those who are telling the public that the current policies will be OK – those such as Messrs Netanyahu, Bennett, and Feiglin, claiming that the world is nothing but a bunch of wimps. Europe can now either confirm these characterizations and can “yup, its true, we are going to double down on our wimpishness” or Europe can say, “actually no, you are losing this argument”. The occupation, settlements and extremism cannot be consequence-free and cost-free indefinitely. The choice of a European message matters, and it matters greatly.
The last point relates to the Palestinians, who, of course, also have agency! I would argue that the importance of recognition in terms of the signal it sends to the Palestinian side is twofold. It sends a signal on tactics and it sends a signal on the end goal.
Recognition sends the signal that diplomacy, politics, and international law is the alternative, alongside unarmed protests.On tactics, the signal it sends is that you have an alternative to armed struggle and violence in pursuing your legitimate political aspirations. If the Palestinians are given a signal by the international community that the only alternative to violence is passive acquiescence in their own dispossession and denial of rights, then don’t be surprised if armed struggle is popular – to resist oppression is human, after all, and not specific to Palestinians or Muslims or Arabs. It is also how the Israeli armed underground behaved at the King David hotel before the state of Israel was established.
Recognition, among other actions, sends the signal that diplomacy, politics, and international law is the alternative, alongside unarmed protests. It also sends a signal on the end goal – namely that the European commitment to two states is genuine. It says that the Palestinians should not take lightly abandoning the idea of two states, but that Europe too does not take lightly the goal of realizing two states.
One last comment: It would send a very problematic message for the European parliament not to continue with the momentum of recognition. Consequently, support for a wording that allows for recognition is a modest European contribution to peace.
After that vote, however, it is worth remembering that non-recognition matters more – not non-recognition of Palestine, but rather non-recognition of the occupation and specifically of the occupation in terms of Europe’s relations with settlement entities. This will require continuing and deepening the differentiation in dealings with Israel proper versus dealings with the settlements. This is most crucial to Europe being “a player”, being serious about two states, and serious about itself as an arbiter of international legality, norms and values.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.