Spain, Ireland, and Norway recognised a Palestinian state. What comes next?

MIDEAST-ISRAEL-GAZA-CONFLICT
7 min read
30 May, 2024

While Europe remains deeply divided on Israel’s war on Gaza, as well as the Palestinian issue more broadly, the number of European countries which recognise the State of Palestine has been growing.

On 28 May, two European Union (EU) members - Spain and Ireland - and non-EU Norway officially recognised a Palestinian state based on the 1949-67 borders.

Ten of the EU’s 27 member-states now recognise a Palestinian state. Those which so did prior to this month were Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Sweden.

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Perhaps ironically, Czechia and Hungary stand out as the EU members most supportive of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, underscoring how recognition of the State of Palestine does not necessarily in and of itself indicate a Palestine-friendly foreign policy.

Nonetheless, Spain, Ireland, and Norway’s decisions to recognise a Palestinian state roughly eight months into Israel’s war as the international community focuses on the carnage in Rafah is a stand in favour of the Palestinian people’s right to self-determination within the framework of the two-state solution, while also opposing Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian land.

Referring to his country’s “historic decision,” Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez declared, “We are acting in accordance with what is expected of a great country like Spain”. Yolanda Díaz, Spain’s second deputy prime minister, accused Israel of waging “genocide” in Gaza and stated, “We must act against Netanyahu”.

"The growing number of EU members recognising a Palestinian state signals Israel's failure to kill the idea of Palestine"

Ireland’s Prime Minister Simon Harris said that the move was about “keeping hope alive” and “believing that a two-state solution is the only way for Israel and Palestine to live side by side in peace and security”. He also called on Netanyahu to “listen to the world and stop the humanitarian catastrophe we are seeing in Gaza”.

Norwegian Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide stated that “for more than 30 years, Norway has been one of the strongest advocates for a Palestinian state”. Oslo’s chief diplomat added that his country’s bold diplomatic move marks a “milestone in the relationship between Norway and Palestine”.

Belgium, Luxembourg, Malta, and Slovenia will probably be the next EU member-states to follow suit. These four countries doing so would result in over half of the EU’s members recognising a Palestinian state.

Israel's war has killed over 36,000 Palestinians and destroyed entire swathes of the Gaza Strip. [Getty]

A symbolically significant development

It would be naïve to expect this increased number of EU members recognising the State of Palestine to immediately have practical implications for the Palestinians themselves.

Analysts have noted that without concerted international action against Israel, such as sanctions as a punishment for the illegal occupation of Palestinian land, which is the key obstacle to Palestinian statehood, having some additional Western governments formally recognise a Palestinian state will mean little on the ground in the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt).

But this overall trend in Europe toward recognition of a Palestinian state must not be dismissed as insignificant.

“We should not underestimate the power of [symbolic] acts [because] such recognitions defend the idea of Palestine against the Zionist dream to [erase] it from our collective political imagination,” Dr Marina Calculli, a Columbia University research fellow in the Department of Middle Eastern, South Asian and African Studies, told The New Arab.

"The diplomatic and legal role of the European states that have recognised the Palestinian state will have an impact on Israel by further isolating it and making its diplomatic life more difficult after military operations end"

Dr Neil Quilliam, an associate fellow in the Middle East and North Africa program at Chatham House, noted how this “important step” can serve to “help the Palestinian Authority increase its diplomatic leverage, enhance its international presence and could lead to an increase in aid and trade”.

While speaking to TNA, Matthew Bryza, the former US deputy assistant secretary of state for Europe and Eurasia, said that more EU member-states recognising the State of Palestine will not impact the Israeli military attack on Rafah.

Given that Netanyahu is moving ahead with this incursion regardless of what the US thinks - and considering that Washington has far more leverage over Tel Aviv than any European capitals do - it would be difficult to argue that countries like Spain, Ireland, and Norway recognising a Palestinian state would impact Israeli actions in Rafah at this point.

“Prime Minister Netanyahu has made it absolutely clear that come hell or high water the IDF is going to continue its offensive on Rafah,” explained Bryza.

“But I think that after the horrible war is over and it’s time to define a political future for Israel and the Palestinian people, I think that the diplomatic and legal role of the European states that have recognised the Palestinian state will then have an impact on Israel by further isolating it and making its diplomatic life more difficult after military operations end,” the former US diplomat told TNA.

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Pressure on Israel

Dr Valeria Talbot, a senior researcher and head of the Middle East and North Africa Centre at the Italian Institute for International Political Studies (ISPI), said in a TNA interview that these new recognitions of a Palestinian state by European governments mark “positive and concrete contributions toward the two-state solution that all EU countries in principle support”.

But the lack of European unity on this front lessens the significance of the diplomatic move made by Ireland, Spain, and Norway. Consequently, Israel’s government will be under quite a bit less pressure than it would be if the EU as a bloc, or at least its most influential members, decided to recognise a Palestinian state.

“While in the short-term this decision does not seem to change Palestinians’ everyday life, it could have a greater impact if other European countries join the group. The more Europeans are united, the more effective their action can be,” added Dr Talbot.

“Until a critical mass of European countries recognises the State of Palestine and that list includes France, Germany, and the UK, the actions of Spain, Ireland, and Norway will cause an inconvenience for Israel, but it won't amount to a serious problem,” noted Dr Quilliam.

There are legal, reputational, and political repercussions for Israel as more countries recognise a Palestinian state. [Getty]

Ultimately, France, Germany, and Italy recognising the State of Palestine would seriously shift the balance in Europe. But in the foreseeable future, it is next to impossible to imagine all three doing so, especially because of Germany.

“Major European states, like France and Germany - and to a lesser extent Italy - have made it clear that they are committed to Israel more than they are to international law and even democratic rule. They are imposing severe limitations to free speech domestically, even incarcerating their own citizens for just calling Israel to abide by international law,” said Dr Calculli in a TNA interview.

Yet, even if the EU’s most influential members are not among those who recognise a Palestinian state, there are problematic issues that Israel must face as the list of European countries that do recognise the State of Palestine grows. As Dr Calculli noted, these are legal, reputational, and political in nature.

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She explained that growing numbers of EU members recognising a Palestinian state signals Israel’s failure to a) “stretch international law to make the occupation appear as somewhat legal”; b) “moralise the occupation and even de facto annexation of the West Bank using both religious and non-religious arguments”; and c) “kill the idea of Palestine”.

“Israel is using the unconditional support by the Biden administration to accelerate the completion of the Nakba, the 76-year-long process of eradicating Palestinians from their land either by expulsion or killing,” added Dr Calculli.

“But the more Palestinians Israel kills, the more people and even governments around the world turn up to defend the idea of Palestine, not only as a state but also as a future realm of justice and reparation for a historical wrong,” she said.

“As long as the idea is there, no matter how dark the present is, there is political hope - something Israel cannot erase, no matter how many bombs it drops on innocent Palestinians.”

Giorgio Cafiero is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics.

Follow him on Twitter: @GiorgioCafiero