Even as the Biden administration vetoes Palestinian statehood, several European states are moving toward full recognition. Their dissent is a welcome crack in the West’s pro-Israel line — but they should back it up with sanctions to punish Israeli apartheid.

A man waves a Palestinian flag as people demonstrate in support of Palestine in front of the city hall in Madrid, Spain, on January 27, 2024. (Javier Soriano / AFP via Getty Images)

Recognition of Palestinian statehood has long been one of the fault lines of global politics. In fact, the main Western powers are often outliers in this regard. Today an overwhelming majority of countries, including a near-solid band stretching from the bottom of South America up through the Caribbean and onto Africa, the Middle East and South and East Asia, recognize the Palestinian state. The United States and Canada stand outside this consensus — joined by other holdouts across the Pacific.

Western Europe is also an exception. In this region only Iceland, the Vatican, and Sweden recognize Palestine, thanks to decisions made in 2011, 2013, and 2014, respectively. They joined the former Eastern Bloc countries that recognized Palestinian statehood after the 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence penned by poet Mahmoud Darwish and proclaimed by Yasser Arafat.

Underscoring this divide, on Thursday, the United States again used its veto to block a draft United Nations resolution on admitting Palestine as a full member. And yet, faced with Israel’s ongoing colonization and massacre in Gaza, it looks like Western monolithism on this question is today fracturing. A growing number of European countries may soon recognize Palestinian statehood.

First Movers

Western doctrine has long premised such recognition on reaching a more general solution through the Oslo Accords framework. This has allowed Israel to simply veto progress by alleging the absence of a credible interlocutor on the Palestinian side — and, more specifically, digging its heels in over border demarcations and the future status of its settlements. Short of an overall deal, recognition of Palestinian statehood will surely have little more than symbolic value. But it is a sign of growing exhaustion in Europe with Israel’s ongoing war on Gaza, and its decades-old stonewalling of the “peace process” through colonization and apartheid.

Spain was among the first states in the European Union to call for a cease-fire late last October, and its government is again pushing for a shift in the bloc’s diplomatic position.  In early March, social democratic prime minister Pedro Sánchez told a conference in Bilbao that he would soon propose that parliament recognize Palestinian statehood. Already in 2014, Spain’s Congress approved a nonbinding resolution calling for the recognition of Palestine. It was stalled by the prime minister of the day, the conservative Mariano Rajoy; but even his successor, Sánchez, had, up till the current crisis, maintained that recognition must be a collective EU initiative.

In Spain’s bid to drive a wedge within the EU on the subject, this March 28, Sánchez met with the heads of government of Ireland, Malta (which recognized the 1988 Independence Declaration), and Slovenia on the sidelines of a European Council meeting. These four EU member states cosigned a communiqué claiming a joint “readiness to recognize Palestine,” albeit with the qualification that the move should come “when [recognition] can make a positive contribution and the circumstances are right.”

That could come sooner than it may seem. Madrid’s declared timeline is to move ahead with diplomatic recognition by this July. In Ireland, Simon Harris replaced center-right Taoiseach (premier) Leo Varadkar in a government reshuffle earlier this month but has vowed to pursue with his predecessor’s call for recognition. During the April 9 session of the Dáil, the Irish parliament’s lower house, vice prime minister, and foreign secretary, Micheál Martin, said, “We have agreed that the undermining of the Oslo Accords and therefore the agreement to create two states has reached a point where the Accords’ approach of recognition after a final agreement is not credible or tenable any longer.” Before flying to Dublin for an April 12 meeting with Harris, in which the two stated they would push the issue of recognition in the next European Council summit, Sánchez was in Oslo where Norway — though not a member of the EU —appeared ready to join the Spanish and Irish-led initiative.

Faced with Israel’s paralysis of the Oslo framework, which Western states have largely ignored since the late 1990s, these moves toward unilateral recognition are symptomatic of a shift in favor of Palestinian rights in some sectors of European opinion. Amid the current crisis, however, immediate recognition of Palestinian statehood has not been one of the main demands of groups like the Ireland Palestine Solidarity Campaign (IPSC). It has prioritized calling for more direct moves to isolate Israel through economic sanctions — demands that the Irish government has thus far resisted. Nonetheless, IPSC chairperson Zoë Lawlor sees the government’s new stance on recognition as the effect of the mass mobilization seen since October.

“We’ve had thousands of people take to the streets in the whole country, up and down, north and south,” Lawlor told Jacobin, pointing out that spurious allegations of “antisemitism” lobbed against critics of Israel elsewhere in the EU have little sway in a country that is itself influenced by a history of colonization. Upwards of 70 percent of the Irish population believe that Palestinians live under a system of apartheid, according to a recent study by Amnesty International Ireland. “Weekly vigils, marches, protests and solidarity actions have really pushed the government,” said Lawlor.

“European states have been somewhat trapped by their own passivity since the Oslo Accords,” says Franco Palestinian jurist Rima Hassan, a France Insoumise candidate for this summer’s European Parliament elections. “There were 100,000 settlers then, and nearly ten times as many today. There is a symbolic dimension to recognition, but above all I think this emergency reaction enables certain states to escape from their position of passivity. However, there’s still the problem of the concrete materiality of the Palestinian state.”

According to Hassan, one possible silver lining in unilateral recognition is that it could represent a foreclosing on the final-status negotiations stipulated in the Oslo Accords, which were supposed to be held within five years of this document’s 1993 signing. Recognition could thus amount to an implicit refusal of Israeli colonization in the occupied territories. “In no way can it be said that this resolves the problem of colonization,” Hassan told Jacobin. “On the other hand, it’s a diplomatic and political way of recognizing that Palestinians are sovereign over the territories where colonies are located. It’s a rejection of the annexationist policy of the Israeli state and a way of saying, ‘Officially, we do not and will not recognize your sovereignty over these territories in the short, medium or long term.’”

From Rhetoric to Reality

But an implicit condemnation is no replacement for applying concrete pressure to reverse colonization, let alone force Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to end its current war. For example, the Irish government’s allegedly imminent formal recognition of Palestine contrasts with its feet-dragging on adopting sanctions against the Israeli state.

Irish activists want to see Harris’s government bring two pieces of legislation to final adoption. Voted in 2018, the Control of Economic Activity Bill, also known as the Occupied Territories Bill, would effectively criminalize Irish business activities drawn from Israeli operations in occupied Palestinian territory. More pointed against Israel, the Illegal Israeli Settlements Divestment Bill (IISD) would order the Ireland’s state investment fund to withdraw from business in Israeli settlements. But the Irish government has stalled the enactment of the Occupied Territories Bill and has warned that adopting the IISD risks turning Ireland into an “international outlier.”

“That the Irish government is making this gesture at all shows the power of our mass movement, but unless it’s backed up with action that ensures the Palestinian right to self-determination, it’s just symbolism,” says Lawlor, urging the final enactment of those two pieces of legislation. “We want the government to cut off all trade with Israel and call for the European Union to suspend commercial ties.”

“There’s no point in recognizing the state of Palestine if we don’t do everything in our power to isolate Israel for its policy of occupation and colonization — above all by adopting sanctions,” says Hassan, noting that the European Union is Israel’s leading commercial partner. The EU was the source of nearly 32 percent of imports to Israel and purchased over 25 percent of its exports in 2022. “If you recognize the state of Palestine today and want to defend anything that might resemble a viable state, you have to completely isolate Israel,” Hassan continued. “We have to do to the Israeli state what we did to South Africa.”

Sanctions

The push for recognition by some European states shows that they are willing to go out ahead of Berlin and Paris, however. The latter have maintained that any recognition of Palestinian statehood needs to be first grounded in an agreement with Israel — a blatantly untenable stance given Israel’s ceaseless colonization beyond its 1967 borders and the blunt statements by Israeli officials against the creation of a Palestinian state. In a faint nod to the growing pressure for recognition coming from elsewhere in the bloc, French president Emmanuel Macron acknowledged in February that the subject is not a “taboo” for France.

Germany is likely to remain the stiffest obstacle, despite it coming under growing pressure for its support of the Israeli military — and the international embarrassment caused by its clampdown on pro-Palestine solidarity and organizing. In mid-March, Nicaragua filed a complaint against Germany before the International Court of Justice, alleging that Berlin’s continued military support for Israel makes it liable for “plausible” complicity in genocide.

The Hague court heard initial arguments on April 8 and 9, days after an April 2 report released by the Berlin-based NGO Forensis revealed that 185 of the 308 export licenses for transfers of military matériel to Israel in 2023 were authorized after the onset of the current war. Amounting to 47 percent of conventional weapons delivered to Israel for the whole of 2023, the €326 million of transferred hardware places Germany in second place globally behind the United States, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.

A possible rupture within Europe in favor of recognition is a sign that popular organizing and pressure is starting to make inroads — forcing some governments to live up to their rhetorical commitments to a Palestinian state. But compared to the obduracy of the United States and Europe’s leading powers, they’re only slight cracks in the West’s long-standing and unequivocal backing for the Israeli state.

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