By Sean Savage/JNS.org
At a time of increasing uncertainty in the Middle East, a growing number of European countries have expressed frustration with the status quo and began sidestepping the diplomatic process between Israelis and Palestinians by recognizing Palestinian statehood in the hope of sending a clear message to Israel. The French National Assembly has voted 339 to 151 in favor of urging its government to recognize a Palestinian state Tuesday.
The Danish government will also vote on the issue in early January, while Sweden has already officially recognized Palestine at the end of October. Symbolic votes also took place in the parliaments of Britain, Ireland, and Spain. A vote by the European Parliament on the recognition of a Palestinian state is expected in mid-December.
These votes are also taking place despite the recent summer war between Israel and the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas in Gaza, the spate of recent terrorist attacks across Jerusalem, in which Israeli civilians have been killed, and the continued infighting between Palestinian factions.
“Europeans may have nothing but good intentions, but recognizing Palestine without the PA [Palestinian Authority] first achieving a settlement with Israel is ultimately misguided. It would be a setback for the quest for real peace and the establishment of a real Palestinian state,” Daniel Schwammenthal, director of the American Jewish Committee’s Transatlantic Institute in Brussels, told JNS.org.
Traditionally, the 28-member European Union has played an important role in negotiating the Arab-Israeli conflict as a member of the Middle East Quartet – EU, UN, United States and Russia.
Nevertheless with peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians stalled since last spring, European leaders have increasingly become impatient.
“The predominate perception in Europe still blames Israel for the lack of progress for peace, not the Palestinians,” Dr. Emanuele Ottolenghi, a senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, told JNS.org.
“They think that somehow recognizing Palestine as a state will somehow send a message to Israel (that) unless Israel does things differently there will be negative political repercussions,” he added.
In early November, the European Union’s new foreign affairs chief Federica Mogherini visited Israel, as well as Gaza and the West Bank, declaring a real “urgency” to end the conflict and reiterating that one of the EU’s top foreign policy goals was the establishment of a Palestinian state.
“We need a Palestinian state — that is the ultimate goal and this is the position of all the European Union,” Mogherini said during her visit to Gaza.
However, Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven also dismissed the current status quo, saying that "it's time to do something different. We wanted to make the balance less uneven between the two parties,” according to the French daily Les Echos.
Ottolenghi believes that European motivation “is a rather skewed view of the realities on the ground and what is driving the conflict,” he said. “There is an inclination to excuse the Palestinians for their actions while over emphasizing the role that the [Israeli] settlements play in the conflict.”
Nonetheless, there have been key differences in each of the resolutions. While Sweden has officially recognized Palestinian statehood, the resolutions passed by the U.K. Parliament, Irish Senate and Spain’s Congress of Deputies have all been symbolic and do not officially change the government’s policy regarding diplomatic status with the Palestinians. The decision by the French National Assembly is also symbolic.
In Spain, the ruling center-right Popular Party added a last minute change to the resolution insisting that any recognition of a Palestinian state “should be promoted in a coordinated manner within the EU, in the framework of a final settlement in the Middle East.”
In France, the resolution proposed by the ruling Socialists and backed by other left-wing parties asked the government to "use the recognition of a Palestinian state with the aim of resolving the conflict definitively.”
Ahead of the French vote, Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius had declared that he supports a two-year timeframe to relaunch and conclude negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians with the support of the U.K. and Germany.
"If this final effort to reach a negotiated solution fails, then France will have to do what it takes by recognizing without delay the Palestinian state," Fabius said, AFP reported.
But the continuing spate of EU countries recognizing Palestinian statehood coupled with a rising tide of anti-Semitism in Europe has led to many Israeli leaders condemning Europe’s actions.
“Sweden must understand that relations in the Middle East are much more complicated than self-assembly furniture at Ikea,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said shortly after Sweden’s recognition in October.
Despite the rhetoric, it is clear that Israel still strongly values its relationship with the EU and its member states. Paul Hirschson, a spokesman for the Israeli Foreign Ministry, downplayed the growing political gap between Israel and Europe, saying that they only have a difference “on process, not on substance.”
“Israel is committed to the two states for two peoples approach to conflict resolution, as are the Europeans,” Hirschson told JNS.org.
However, Hirschson was critical of the approach of many European nations, who by unilaterally recognizing Palestinian statehood will make it more difficult to get the Palestinians back to the negotiating table and make the necessary compromises needed for a lasting peace.
“To give them the impression they can get what they want without compromises, which both parties to the Arab-Israeli conflict are going to have to make, makes it more difficult for the Palestinians to undertake those compromises they (too, as will Israel) have to make,” Hirschson added.
“The only way we are going to resolve this conflict is at the negotiating table and Europe, unintentionally, is making that far more difficult and probably further away into the future. This is a great pity for Israel who would like nothing more than a resolution to our differences with the Arab world at large,” Hirschson said.
At the same time, the souring political relationship between Israel and the EU may also spill over to the economic realm. The EU is Israel’s largest trading partner with total trade around $37 billion a year. Israel also has an Association Agreement with the EU that covers cooperation in trade, science and culture. For many EU states, Israel is an important source of high-tech, scientific and defense technology.
“It is very hard to undo such a complex commercial and economic partnership between nations. I‘m just not sure how the EU could cherry pick what it decides to do without causing serious political damage,” Ottolenghi told JNS.org.
“I don’t think you’ll see the same extent of economic pressure but there are worrying signs. At the very least you might see targeted sanctions in the future,” he added.
Nevertheless, Ottolenghi does not believe Israel would ever face the level of EU sanctions that countries like Iran face due to the long economic, political and cultural linkages between Europe and Israel.
“The EU is bound to lose as well if they target Israel with sanctions. The EU is aware that they will lose critical economic ties [as well as] what little leverage it has over Israel politically if it wages economic war on (the Jewish state),” Ottolenghi said.
Beyond the damaging political and diplomatic repercussions of supporting Palestinian statehood, there are also legal concerns.
“As a community of law, the EU would set a dangerous precedent by recognizing a state that clearly doesn't fulfill the established international law criteria for statehood, such as control over a defined territory. The recent Gaza War underscored that the PA has no control over Gaza,” Schwammenthal told JNS.org.
For both Israelis and Palestinians, the EU’s latest unilateral efforts may ultimately derail what little hope there is for peace.
“To the Palestinians such a move signals that they don't have to make the necessary compromises in peace talks and that it is even ok to circumvent such direct talks altogether. To the Israelis, recognition suggests that Europe is not an honest broker,” Schwammenthal told JNS.org.
With reporting by Alina Dain Sharon
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