The impact of recognising a Palestinian state

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As fighting and suffering continues in Gaza, and violence grows in the West Bank, prospects of the Palestinian people gaining their own state might seem further away than ever.

Several European countries are pressing ahead with formally recognising the existence of a Palestinian state, but they will not overcome the reality that such ambition still faces huge obstacles.

However, Tuesday’s actions by Ireland, Spain and Norway, announced last week, will put pressure on other countries in Europe – including the UK, France and Germany – to follow them in supporting Palestinian self-determination.

“This is extremely significant,” one Arab diplomat said.

“It reflects European frustration with the Israeli government’s refusal to listen.

“And it puts pressure on the EU to follow suit.”

But Israeli ministers insist this will encourage Hamas and reward terrorism, further reducing the chances of a negotiated settlement.

Most countries – about 139 in all – formally recognise a Palestinian state.

On 10 May, 143 out of 193 members of the United Nations’ general assembly voted in favour of a Palestinian bid for full UN membership, something that is only open to states.

Palestine currently has a kind of enhanced observer status at the UN, which gives them a seat but not a vote in the assembly.

It is also recognised by various international organisations including the Arab League and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation.

A minority of European countries already recognise a Palestinian state. They comprise Hungary, Poland, Romania, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Bulgaria which adopted the position 1988; and others including Sweden and Cyprus.

But many European nations – and the United States – say they will recognise a Palestinian state only as part of a long-term political solution to the conflict in the Middle East.

This is often referred to as the “two-state solution” where both Israelis and Palestinians agree to have their own states with their own borders.

European countries and the US differ over when they should recognise a Palestinian state.

Ireland, Spain and Norway say they are doing so now to kick-start a political process. They argue there will be a sustained solution to the current crisis only if both sides can aim at some kind of political horizon.

These countries are also responding to domestic political pressures to show more support for Palestinians.

In the past, the position of many Western countries was that Palestinian statehood should be a prize for a final peace agreement.

But Lord Cameron, the UK Foreign Secretary, and some other European countries have in recent months shifted their positions, saying the recognition of Palestinian statehood could come earlier, to help drive momentum towards a political settlement.

In February, French President Emmanuel Macron said: “The recognition of a Palestinian state is not a taboo for France.”

And earlier this month, France supported Palestinian membership of the UN in the general assembly vote.

The US has privately discussed this issue with European allies, but is more cautious and wants a clearer sense of what the policy would mean in practice.

So the key debate behind the scenes is about when these holdout countries should recognise a Palestinian state: when formal peace talks begin between Israelis and Palestinians, when Israel and Saudi Arabia normalise diplomatic relations, when Israel fails to undertake certain actions, or when the Palestinians take certain actions.

In other words, they want recognition of the state of Palestine to be a big moment designed to achieve a diplomatic outcome.

“It is a big card that Western countries have to play,” one Western official said. “We don’t want to throw it away.”

The problem is that recognising a Palestinian state is largely a symbolic gesture if it does not also address the vital concomitant questions.

What should the borders be? Where should the capital be located? What should both sides do first to make it happen?

These are difficult questions that have not been agreed – or even answered – satisfactorily for decades.

As of last week, a few more countries in Europe now believe there should be a Palestinian state.

Supporters will cheer the move, opponents will decry it.

The grim reality for Palestinians on the ground is unlikely to change.



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