The Palestinians say they are on track to unilaterally declare statehood at the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly when it opens in New York in September. More than 110 countries — more than half of all UN members — have already recognized Palestine diplomatically. These includes European Union members Hungary, Poland and Romania. In recent weeks, however, the momentum to recognize a Palestinian state has been building in larger, more influential European countries.
In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy, in an interview with the L’Express newsmagazine on May 5, said: “If the peace process is still dead in September, France will face up to its responsibilities on the central question of the recognition of a Palestinian state. The idea that there is still plenty of time is dangerous. Things have to be brought to a conclusion” before September. Sarkozy also said that during the next few months, European countries would try “to relaunch the peace process along with the Americans, because Europe cannot be the main one paying for Palestine and yet remain a minor figure politically in the matter.”
On April 21, Sarkozy hosted Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Élysée Palace in Paris to discuss Palestinian statehood. Ahead of that meeting, the French Foreign Ministry said the Palestinians are “more than ever ready to establish a state and run it in a credible and peaceful way.” On April 22, French Ambassador to the United Nations Gérard Araud said: “The recognition of a Palestinian state is an option that we are currently thinking about, with our European partners.” On March 22, French Prime Minister François Francois Fillon said that “2011 must be the year of the creation of a Palestinian state.” On March 15, French Foreign Minister Alain Juppé said the recognition of a Palestinian state by the European Union is a “possibility that should be kept in mind.”
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on May 3 that Britain is prepared to formally recognize an independent Palestinian state in September unless Israel opens peace talks with the Palestinians. That warning came after Netanyahu told Cameron that the so-called unity pact between rival Palestinian factions Fatah, which rules the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamic resistance movement that rules Gaza, is a “tremendous blow to peace and a great victory for terrorism.” Palestinian leaders say the deal is a major step towards an independent state, but Israel fears the reconciliation will open the door to Hamas militants being deployed in the West Bank.
British diplomats described Cameron’s threat to recognize a Palestinian state as one of Britain’s few “levers” to press Israel to join talks with Palestinian officials. “The best way for the Israelis to avoid a unilateral declaration is to engage in peace talks,” a British official told the Guardian newspaper.
Despite promises to the contrary, the British government still has not amended a universal jurisdiction law that permits pro-Palestinian activist groups to bring lawsuits against Israeli politicians and military personnel for purported war crimes. On May 3, Israeli Major General Yohanan Locker was locked out of Britain. An integral member of Netanyahu’s circle of advisers and deputy head of the Israeli Air Force during Operation Cast Lead, Locker was forced to remain in Israel rather than risk arrest in London on charges of “war crimes.”
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel has moved closer to other European countries in adopting an increasingly tough stance toward Israel. In February, Merkel chided Netanyahu for failing to make “a single step to advance peace.” On February 18, Germany (along with Britain and France) voted in favour of a UN Security Council resolution condemning Israeli settlement-building in disputed territory as illegal.
Nevertheless, Germany remains one of the only major European countries explicitly to say that it will not recognize a Palestinian state without Israel’s acceptance. Ahead of a visit to Berlin by Mahmoud Abbas on May 5, a German government spokesman said: “The policy of the German government remains what Chancellor [Angela] Merkel said after talks with Israel’s Prime Minister [Benjamin] Netanyahu in April: that in her view a unilateral recognition would not contribute to the goal” of a two-state solution. Merkel had said after her talks with Netanyahu on April 7 that any German recognition of a Palestinian state would be within the context of mutual Israeli-Palestinian recognition.
In Norway, Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre, in an interview with Haaretz newspaper on March 3, said that his country would consider recognizing a Palestinian state if no progress is made in the peace process by September 2011. He said Israel runs the risk of being seen internationally as a “permanent occupier” if the stalemate in the peace process continues. “Europe,” he said, “is watching for results and initiatives toward a settlement of this conflict. The major challenge for Israel in this century is that it stands out as an occupier in breach of international law. This to me is a big challenge to the quality of Israel — which is to be a democracy and a player in the first division in the world. I think that in key European capitals the hope to see that change is thinner than it used to be.”
In Spain, Foreign Minister Trinidad Jiménez said on February 9 that 2011 would be a “crucial year” for Palestinian statehood: “Spain is firmly committed to the creation of a Palestinian state. We are going to put all of our efforts and capacities to achieve it.” Spain and neighbouring France have been laying the political groundwork for the European Union to recognize a Palestinian state for more than a year.
Former Spanish Foreign Minister Miguel Ángel Moratinos and former French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner in February 2010 penned an influential article entitled, “A Palestinian State: When?” which laid out their vision for Europe’s role in creating a Palestinian state.
The article reminded readers that the European Union is the biggest single provider of financial aid to the Palestinians. Often described as a “payer but not a player” in the Middle East, the authors argued that the European Union must work more aggressively in bringing about Palestinian statehood. They also argued that time is of the essence and that the European Union “must not confine itself to the … outlines of the final settlement” and “should collectively recognize the Palestinian State.… There is no more time to lose. Europe must pave the way.” The authors say the upcoming twentieth anniversary of the Madrid peace conference, which was convened in October 1991, would be a good moment to recognize Palestinian independence.
In a separate interview with the Paris-based Journal du Dimanche, Kouchner said: “The issue currently before us is the building of a reality. France is training Palestinian police and businesses are being created in the West Bank…. It follows that one can envision the proclamation soon of a Palestinian state, and its immediate recognition by the international community, even before negotiating its borders.” He added: “If by mid-2011, the political process has not ended the [Israeli] occupation, I would bet that the developed state of Palestinian infrastructure and institutions will be such that the pressure will force Israel to give up its occupation.”
In Brussels, the European Union adopted a resolution in December 2009 that for the first time explicitly calls for Jerusalem to become the future capital of a Palestinian state. The EU declared: “If there is to be a genuine peace, a way must be found through negotiations to resolve the status of Jerusalem as the future capital of two states.” Israel has always maintained that Jerusalem will remain its undivided capital, regardless of any future peace settlement with the Palestinians. This has been the declared policy of all Israeli governments, both left and right.
Meanwhile, several European countries have already upgraded their diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority. On March 9, Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen said that Denmark would upgrade the status of the Palestinian delegation in Copenhagen to a mission. On March 8, British Foreign Secretary William Hague announced London’s decision to upgrade its presence in Jerusalem from a delegation to a mission. On January 25, Ireland decided to upgrade the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Dublin to the status of an official embassy. Cyprus, France, Portugal and Spain have also in recent months upgraded their diplomatic relations with the Palestinians.
In an interview with France 24 television, Abbas said “a certain number of European countries have recently sent additional delegations and official representatives to the Palestinian territories. From our side, we are already treating them like ambassadors.”