European countries need to recognise the Palestinian state before it's too late

Sam Bahour

In January, when the Trump administration formally unveiled its long-awaited peace plan for the Israel-Palestine conflict – known as the “deal of the century” – not a Palestinian was in sight, nor were any invited to the White House press conference. President Trump shared the stage with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and they elatedly walked through the 181-page document, which pretends to serve as a roadmap for a two-state solution, but in reality is a “surrender document” that denies Palestinian rights and recognises Israel’s claims to its illegal settlements.

Related: Israel's annexation of the West Bank will be yet another tragedy for Palestinians | Ian Black

The world was shocked. Europe was dumbfounded. The US was publicly calling for the annexation of large parts of the West Bank.

The deal has challenged European perceptions of whether the US is a capable arbitrator. Historically, the US has monopolised the process of conflict resolution in the region, with legitimacy derived from its claim to uphold the international consensus of a two-state solution based on 1967 lines. As long as the US paid lip service to this “just and lasting peace based on a vision of two states”, Europe happily retreated to a rearguard role in conflict resolution, pumping billions of euros of aid money into the Palestinian territories to keep them solvent while shirking any leadership responsibilities.

The deal of the century put the EU and its member states in a difficult position. It could either revise its policies to match those put forward by the US, or express objections. The new government in Israel set a date – 1 July – for the start of annexation. When this became common knowledge, Europe started to talk openly about sanctions.

In the run-up to 1 July, parliaments in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany passed resolutions concerning punitive actions should annexation proceed. Josep Borrell, the EU’s foreign policy chief, warned of “significant consequences” for the EU-Israeli relationship were annexation to proceed. The EU is Israel’s largest trading partner, with total trade amounting to approximately €36.2bn (£32.4bn) in 2017. The threat of economic sanctions would presumably carry much more weight than the speculative talk of academic and diplomatic boycotts. However, sanctions at the federal (EU) level continue to be “off the table” for manifold reasons. An investigation by Reuters revealed that “there is no clear EU strategy either on how to stop Israel’s plan or to respond in a meaningful way if annexation goes ahead”.

Netanyahu’s start date for annexation has passed, and the issue, for now, has been kicked down the road. One may assume that the EU is relieved. There may even be hope, no matter how slim, that the US presidential elections in November could see Trump and his annexationist camp ousted from power, bringing US policy back in harmony with international consensus. Palestine will continue to be occupied, settlement-building will proceed, and daily life will continue to be increasingly unbearable for walled-off and cut-off Palestinian communities. But the EU will feel safe and comfortable in the knowledge that the US is committed to the two-state solution, and is “working on it”.

So, if we accept that at the federal level, Europe is impotent, what can individual EU member states do given the urgency of the situation before us?

The answer is simple: recognise an independent Palestinian state, before Israeli annexation takes place. The EU states would not be making history; rather they would be joining the majority of the world, including Sweden, the first EU member state to recognise Palestine.

In December 2019, Luxembourg’s foreign minister, Jean Asselborn, penned a letter to Borrell stating that the time was right to recognise a Palestinian state. Such a move, he argued, “would neither be a favour, nor a blank cheque, but a simple recognition of the right of the Palestinian people to their state. In no way would it be directed against Israel.”

Recognition is a purely bilateral, state-to-state issue that does not need approval or unity at the federal level. Recognising Palestine provides EU member states with a chance to underscore their commitment to the two-state solution as the only viable solution, countering Israel’s annexation plans by clearly demonstrating adherence to international law – not to mention EU law – and not the “law of the jungle” of prolonged military occupation.

Recognition of Palestine is not as contentious as sanctions, although sanctions are the ultimate tool needed to bring Israel in line with international law. Bilateral recognition can be passed and ratified by individual state parliaments. On the ground, nothing will change, and occupation will continue the day after recognition, but legally the game is dramatically changed.

By recognising a Palestinian state, future Israeli attempts at annexation can be treated by EU countries as a conquest of another country by force, and not merely an extension of sovereignty by the military occupier over occupied territory, as Israel is proclaiming. It may be a step that is too little too late, but it would at least be a step in the right direction.

• Sam Bahour is a Palestinian-American business consultant from Ramallah/Al-Bireh in occupied Palestine. He is a policy adviser to Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network

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