Recognizing Palestine: Right Decision, Wrong Timing

If the European Parliament recognizes Palestine as a state, it will only further the Palestinian government's misconception that it can achieve statehood without having to negotiate a peace agreement with Israel.

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas waves to the crowd during celebrations for their successful bid to win U.N. statehood recognition, December 2, 2012.Credit: AP

The European Parliament is expected to vote on a proposal this month, initiated by the parliament’s Socialists and Democrats group and with the backing of the European United Left/Nordic Green Left group, to recognize the state of Palestine. The initiative also has the support of a group of prominent Israelis who, in a message to the parliament, encouraged it to go ahead.

If the European Parliament votes in favor of the proposal, it would follow in the steps of Sweden, which has officially recognized Palestine as a state, and some national parliaments – including the United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain and, most recently, France – whose lawmakers have passed motions calling on their government to recognize Palestine. There seems to be some momentum in Europe for the recognition of Palestine because of the frustration with the stalemate in the peace process and the disappointment with the Israeli government’s policy.

There is nothing in international law that prohibits the Palestinian authority from unilaterally declaring independence, but to the European Union, it’s a political issue that needs careful consideration. All final-status issues remain unresolved: the future Palestinian state's borders, security arrangements, the status of Jerusalem, water allocation and last but not the least the right of return of Palestinian refugees.

These are all difficult issues that require mutually acceptable and agreed-upon solutions. That’s why the official EU position until now has been that recognizing Palestine now would be premature. The European Council has often declared that European Union will only recognize those borders that have been agreed by the parties to the conflict as the result of direct peace negotiations.

When the new Swedish government decided to recognize Palestine, it was motivated by the hope that doing so would send a signal to the moderate forces among the Palestinians and level the playing field in future negotiations with Israel.

This sounds all well and good, but where are these moderates? They aren’t signing any petitions to the European Parliament in favor of a two-state solution. The Palestinian government obviously believes that it can achieve statehood without having to negotiate with Israel and will no doubt feel encouraged in its misconception if the European Parliament recognizes Palestine as a state.

We know that the Palestinian government is preparing a resolution on Palestine for the UN Security Council – not on restarting serious negotiations, but to put a deadline on the occupation and to declare it illegal when peace talks, as they anticipate, fail.

The occupation has continued too long and has become permanent with the expansion of the settlements. As long as it continues, there will be no peace. But neither will a unilateral Israeli withdrawal without an agreement with the Palestinians result in peace.

Shortly before the beginning of the recent Gaza war, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was interviewed for Haaretz's Israel Conference on Peace. In the interview, he emerged as a peace partner. But in his speech at the UN General Assembly in September he appeared to have lost all faith in bilateral peace talks with Israel and accused it of war crimes and even genocide in Gaza.

Since then, he has issued inciting statements on Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa mosque. Nothing could be more detrimental for the prospects of peace than transforming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – basically a political and territorial conflict – into an absolute religious conflict. That plays also into the hands of Hamas, the Islamist group that rules the Gaza Strip, and is bent on eternal war with Israel.

I have the feeling that those who favor recognition of Palestine now, preempting any negotiations, do it because they think that a solution to the conflict is an easy fix. To paraphrase Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, the Swedes may believe achieving a peace agreement is as easy as assembling pieces of IKEA furniture. But no, it isn’t. Solving the conflict is complicated – if it weren’t we would already have peace.

Another misconception is that Israel alone is to be blamed for the failure in the last round of peace talks and that recognition of Palestine would put pressure on Israel to change course. This notion is misguided, as not just Israel, but the Palestinians too, have been obstructing the peace process. A decision on the recognition of Palestine should take this into consideration. Otherwise, it will be seen as a one-sided decision and become counter-productive.

The Israeli government obstructed the latest round of peace talks with provocative acts, in particular announcing construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank while the talks were ongoing, and the pro-settlement parties in the government are doing much to cement the occupation. But the Palestinian Authority has too easily used settlement construction as pretext to end – or avoid – negotiations. Afraid of its own extremists and what the Arab states would say – as if these countries, preoccupied as they are by their sectarian divides and civil wars, care about the Palestinians – it has rejected previous compromise proposals and more recently refused to continue the peace talks until a mutual acceptable agreement is reached.

The mediators have also made mistakes. When the parties could not agree in the latest round of peace talks, the United States proposed a framework agreement, which was supposed to outline the content of a final peace agreement. By only discussing the draft framework agreement with the Israelis and not showing it to the Palestinians until the very last minute, the latter lost faith in the impartiality of the United States as a mediator.

A question we all have to ask ourselves is what will happen if the EU Parliament – and other EU states – recognizes Palestine without any peace negotiations following suit. Will a two-state solution be imposed? Will Palestine keep the conflict with Israel alive and continue to pursue the right of the return of the Palestinian refugees to Israel? If that happens, premature recognition of Palestine will both threaten Israel's security and survival, and jeopardize the possibility of ever achieving peace.

Mose Apelblat, from Sweden, is a former official at the European Commission in Brussels where he worked with public administration reform in the candidate countries. As a freelancer he has been following the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for many years and regularly comments on it in media.

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