The European Parliament today postponed a vote on whether to recognize a Palestinian state, but the vote will likely come in mid-December. The Jerusalem Post reports that Israeli officials say such a move would be purely symbolic and not reflective of public opinion, though Israeli diplomats also lobbied hard for the postponement.
The move comes after Sweden formally recognized Palestine in October, becoming just the second Western European country after Iceland to do so. All that official recognition means, really, is that it’s the official position of the Swedish government that Palestine is a country. But in a situation this politically fraught, that means a lot. “The purpose of Sweden’s recognition is to contribute to a future in which Israel and Palestine can live side by side in peace and security,” Sweden’s minister for foreign affairs explained in a press release that also touts “a five-year aid strategy including substantially increased support to Palestinian state-building.” U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, for his part, said on Monday that these unilateral recognitions are a sign of “a collective [international] failure” to make progress in the peace talks.
Elsewhere in Europe, the parliaments of Britain, Ireland, and Spain have all passed resolutions urging their governments to recognize a Palestinian state, and France will vote on a similar resolution next week, though there’s a bit more opposition there. These are non-binding measures that urge recognition as part of a negotiated settlement, and unlike Sweden’s move, don’t actually change government policy. They are nonetheless seen as the first step toward full recognition, and were strongly opposed by the Israeli government.
Europe is behind the curve here. The bulk of U.N. member states—135 out of 192—already recognize Palestine, including the majority of countries in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, and Latin America. These things have a way of gathering momentum. Most of the countries in South America flipped positions to recognize Palestine in rapid succession in 2011. For now, the European votes, with the exception of Sweden, have all been non-binding parliamentary measures, but if a large European power decides to recognize, the others could follow suit quickly.
The Palestinian Authority has actively courted recognition from these governments, but how much does it really matter? As long as the U.S. has a veto on the Security Council, Palestine isn’t getting full U.N. membership, the gold standard of international statehood. The Palestinian Authority announced yesterday that it was delaying its planned U.N. bid due in part to U.S. pressure.
But recognition is still important. It matters with regards to legitimacy that, for instance, Kosovo—not likely to become a U.N. member thanks to Russia’s veto—boasts recognition from 110 countries while Abkhazia is bragging about its relations with Nauru. (Pacific Islands are the very buyable swing voters of international recognition disputes. See China and Taiwan’s completely ridiculous wooing of Vanuatu for just one example.)
The risk here, for the United States and Israel, is the Cuban-ization of Palestinian statehood. Every year for the past 23 years, the U.N. General Assembly has voted to condemn the U.S. embargo on Cuba, and every time the U.S. has looked increasingly isolated and ridiculous. This year, only Israel voted with the U.S. against the condemnation, with Palau, the Marshall Islands, and Micronesia abstaining. (Those islands again.)
The majority of countries worldwide might recognize Palestine, but non-recognition is still the mainstream position among rich Western countries. As the Cuba example shows, the U.S. is more than willing to stick to an unpopular position even if it’s opposed by virtually every other government on earth. But Israel doesn’t want to get to the point where it’s standing alongside the U.S., Micronesia, and no one else.