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Palestine is a state waiting to be recognized

Decades of delay over recognizing Palestinian statehood have not advanced by one iota the cause of peace negotiations (AFP)
Decades of delay over recognizing Palestinian statehood have not advanced by one iota the cause of peace negotiations (AFP)
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08 May 2024 03:05:30 GMT9
08 May 2024 03:05:30 GMT9

Once again, as a matter of routine, the US has vetoed a Palestinian request to the UN Security Council for full UN membership and, by that, prevented the only global political body with the power to bestow such a recognition from doing so.

This was a reflection of another of Washington’s contradictions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue, as its foreign policy chiefs, including President Joe Biden, are repeatedly expressing their support for a two-state solution, the logical conclusion of which is an independent Palestinian state.

However, this has not meant recognition of Palestinian statehood prior to a peace agreement with Israel, but highlighted that there is broad international support for such a recognition and brought to the fore the question of whether recognition would accelerate peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, slow it down or make no difference. In Europe, the discourse around this question is rapidly changing, much of it because of the war in Gaza, and Spain is leading a move to recognize Palestinian statehood, as last week affirmed by EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell on the sidelines of a World Economic Forum special meeting in Riyadh.

It can be argued that Palestine is already a state, with or without a formal recognition by the UNSC. It has governing bodies of sorts and its pre-June 1967 borders are, generally speaking, internationally recognized. And, of the UNSC’s 15 members, 12 voted in favor of the recent resolution on recognizing Palestinian statehood. The US opposed it and two countries (the UK and Switzerland) abstained, but it is not exactly a secret that these three countries also support a two-state solution but, for their own reasons, have not yet crossed this Rubicon.

International recognition could considerably close the power gap between the two sides of the conflict

Yossi Mekelberg

Furthermore, Palestine has already been accepted as a nonmember observer state of the UN General Assembly — in November of 2012, by a vote supported by 138 countries and opposed by only nine member states. In many countries, Palestinian diplomatic delegations are treated on equal footing with embassies. Eight of the 27 EU members have already recognized Palestine as a state, as have most African, Asian and Latin American countries. In practical terms, it can be argued that this raises the question of whether a formal UNSC recognition would be merely symbolic, as important as it might be.

However, whatever merit there is to claiming that recognition of its statehood would be merely gestural, the more persuasive argument is that it would mean a substantial departure from the current situation, which disadvantages the Palestinians because of the very asymmetric nature of the conflict. It would create a different dynamic in relations between the Palestinians and the general international approach to the nature of the negotiations.

There is a marked difference in relations, especially in the context of negotiations, between one side that is a recognized state with all the symbols of one, let alone territorial integrity, recognized borders and military and economic power, and the other, which is an entity that is mostly under occupation, with many of those it represents living in the diaspora and whose security and economy are at the mercy of the occupier. This puts the latter at a severe disadvantage, but international recognition could considerably close the power gap between the two.

As it stands, recognition — or, more accurately, the prevention of such a recognition — is a tool misused by Israel to demand concessions from the Palestinians. For Palestinians, recognition should serve as an incentive to unite and reform their system of governance and, just as importantly, transform their discourse from that of a liberation movement to one that has responsibility for the security and well-being of all its people.

Past and present Israeli administrations, including those that supported the Oslo Accords, have opposed recognizing Palestine as a state because this would deprive the former of key pressure points on the Palestinians. And, as during the Netanyahu years, this is part of their wider policy of obstructing a peace agreement based on a two-state solution.

This issue has become a distraction that has prevented the sides from progressing on other outstanding issues

Yossi Mekelberg

For the international community to present Israel with Palestinian statehood as a fait accompli would be to send a clear signal of intent, forcing Israel to adjust accordingly or find itself isolated. It is far from guaranteed that Tel Aviv will draw the right conclusions from the horrific experiences post-Oct. 7, but one of these lessons is that preventing Palestinian statehood through meddling in Palestinian affairs only empowers those Palestinian elements who are least conducive to living peacefully side by side with Israel.

Decades of delay over recognizing Palestinian statehood have not advanced by one iota the cause of peace negotiations, let alone a peace agreement. On the contrary, this issue has become a bottleneck and a distraction that has prevented the sides from progressing on other outstanding issues.

Now, there is certainly the danger that one or both sides might reach the wrong conclusion from such a recognition. Israel, due to its ingrained distrust of the international community, would probably see it as another deliberate move to undermine its security and its survival. The Palestinians, meanwhile, might conclude that the tide has turned in their favor and against Israel, feel that there is no urgency to conclude a peace agreement and consequently harden their position. If that were the case, it would be for the international community to ensure that this thinking is nipped in the bud.

The last few months have dramatically changed the domestic and international discourse over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and highlighted the understanding that avoiding any proactive approach to resolving it comes at an intolerable price whose impact goes well beyond Israel and Palestine. But it is impossible to envisage Washington leading a radical change to this intractable conflict, especially in an election year.

So, this makes it imperative that the EU, both as individual members and as one of the more powerful and influential political bodies in international affairs and which has deep-rooted interests in the region and its stability, not to mention its historical connections, takes the lead and the initiative in recognizing Palestine as a state. This would send a clear message to Washington that America either joins Europe in recognition or remains almost isolated from its friends by not doing so.

Simply recognizing Palestine as a state will not be a complete panacea, but it will be an essential turning point toward a just and viable resolution to one of the most protracted and volatile conflicts in modern history.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is a professor of international relations and an associate fellow of the Middle East and North Africa Program at international affairs think tank Chatham House. X: @YMekelberg
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