Susie Becher

Recognizing Palestine: From Byproduct of Violence to Best Prospect for Peace

Ambassadors Ana Sálomon Pérez of Spain, Per Egil Selvaag of Norway, and Sonya McGuinness of Irelands at the Foreign Ministry watching footage of female soldiers being abducted from the Nahal Oz base on October 7 on May 23, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Ambassadors Ana Sálomon Pérez of Spain, Per Egil Selvaag of Norway, and Sonya McGuinness of Irelands at the Foreign Ministry watching footage of female soldiers being abducted from the Nahal Oz base on October 7 on May 23, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It is beginning to look as if the US veto of the UN Security Council vote on granting the State of Palestine full membership in the United Nations will not stem the tide of recognition that is gaining momentum.  Within a month of the failed attempt at the UNSC, the UN General Assembly upgraded the nonmember status of Palestine by a vote of 143 in favor and nine against, with the United States and Israel finding small comfort in the support of countries such as Palau and Nauru in their objection to the move. Even Germany, Israel’s staunchest European ally, chose to abstain rather than vote no.

On the heels of the UNGA decision, Spain, Norway, and Ireland announced that they were recognizing the State of Palestine. Slovenia followed a week later, and Armenia two weeks after that.  According to EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell, several European countries are expected to follow suit, and eyes are on Belgium, Luxembourg, and Malta to see if they will be next in line. Australia is not yet on board, but Foreign Minister Penny Wong has said that the government “no longer believes that recognition can only come at the end of a peace process.”  The UK Labour Party, which is preparing for a sweeping victory in next month’s general elections, released a new manifesto which sends a message to Israel that “recognition is not the gift of any neighbor” and commits the party to recognizing Palestine “as a contribution to a renewed peace process.” Though not a vow to recognize Palestine once in office, the Labour position now clearly puts Israel in its place and paves the way toward recognition prior to the conclusion of peace talks.

Approximately six months ago, it was reported that Secretary of State Blinken had tasked the US State Department with examining various options related to recognition of Palestine, including  encouragement of other countries to do so, abstention or approval of a UN Security Council vote in favor of full UN membership, or unilateral recognition by the United States itself. The review was conducted within the context of what has become known as the Biden Doctrine, a comprehensive plan for Middle East peace that would include Israeli ties with Saudi Arabia in addition to realization of the two-state solution. The White House has since repeatedly clarified that there is no change in its position that recognition of the State of Palestine must come through direct negotiations between the parties. That resolve may yet change, however, if Prime Minister Netanyahu persists in his defiance of President Biden’s objections to the manner in which the Gaza war is being conducted. If the last flicker of hope for a ceasefire deal is extinguished and Netanyahu either continues the flailing war in the south or declares victory and orders the troops northward to Lebanon, the US president could reach his breaking point and adopt recognition as a last-ditch effort to save the two-state solution.

With or without the United States, it is clear that the recognition train has left the station and that more and more countries will be hopping on board. Those who have already made the move explained their decision, inter alia, as righting a historical wrong according to which the United Nations recognized the State of Israel as a full member in 1949, realizing one-half of the Partition Plan outlined in UN General Assembly Resolution 181, while the State of Palestine has not yet achieved that status. Ireland, Spain, and Norway framed their move as a practical step meant to keep the hope of a two-state solution alive and help the Israelis and Palestinians achieve peace. This sentiment was later echoed by Slovenia’s Foreign Minister Tanja Fajon, who wrote on X that   her country’s decision was “a message of hope and peace.” While admitting that concern over the humanitarian crisis in Gaza and Hamas’s capture of Israeli hostages helped drive its decision to recognize Palestine now, the Armenian Foreign Ministry clearly stated that it saw the move as clearly buffering the two-state solution, which it said is be “the only way to ensure that both Palestinians and Israelis can fulfill their legitimate aspirations.”

Recognition of the State of Palestine is certainly long overdue. One of the failures of the Oslo process was that it began by reinforcing the existing imbalance between the parties through the exchange of letters in which Yasir Arafat recognized the right of the State of Israel to exist while, in turn, Yitzhak Rabin recognized the PLO as the representative of the Palestinian people. Palestinian statehood was not on the agenda until President Bush released his Road Map for Peace in 2002, to which Israel answered “yes, but….” Since Oslo, successive Israeli governments have persisted in the view that Palestinian statehood is dependent upon the conclusion of a peace agreement with Israel, effectively holding hostage the Palestinian people’s ability to exercise their inalienable right to self-determination.

Watching this veto power slipping through its fingers in recent weeks, the Netanyahu government has been lashing out, claiming that recognition of Palestine compromises Israel’s security. Foreign Minister Israel Katz called it an attack on Israeli sovereignty.  Katz’s argument holds water only in the eyes of those who don’t recognize the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations on the borders between Israel and Palestine. If anything, recognition of the State of Palestine alongside the State of Israel within the territory between the river and the sea actually strengthens Israeli sovereignty both de facto and de jure, as it lays the foundation for negotiations over the precise borders of both states.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has set the tone of the anti-recognition campaign by calling it “a reward for terrorism.” Among the challenges to that argument put forward by the proponents of recognition is the claim that Hamas does not support the two-state solution and that recognition of Palestine alongside Israel is an obstacle to its goal of eliminating the Jewish state. Therefore, the argument goes, recognition doesn’t help Hamas; it hurts it. And that is where the supporters of recognition, including the well-meaning Israeli left that sees the trend as an opportunity not to be lost, risk losing their credibility.

There is no denying that it was the brutal October 7 massacre perpetrated by Hamas that woke the international community from its stupor regarding the need to resolve the conflict. Though not intended as a “reward” for terrorism, the debates and decisions on recognition are unquestionably a consequence of the chain of events set off by the Hamas attacks. This awareness is reflected in polls conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, where the rise in Hamas’s popularity among the Palestinian public following the October 7 attack can be seen.  In fact, the center’s most recent poll found that 80% of Palestinians “believe it put the Palestinian issue at the center of global attention.”

Hamas welcomed the decision by Ireland, Spain, and Norway, saying that it was “an important step toward realizing our rights on our land and establishing our independent Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital.” Hamas official Bassem Na’im told a Saudi daily that recognition is “a historic turning point” and portrayed it as “the direct result of the brave resistance and the legendary steadfastness of our people.” While this does not signal Hamas support for two states, it is an indication that the organization sees the West’s shift on the question of recognition as a feather in its cap.

President Mahmoud Abbas had no choice but to welcome the recognition announcements, although he has the most to lose from the connection between the war and the wave of recognition because his  popularity is just above rock bottom and he is very wary of any boost to Hamas. In fact, when Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamanei praised the war as being “necessary for the region” and having “come at the right time,” Abbas condemned his remarks, issuing a statement that said that the Palestinian people “don’t need wars that do not serve their aspiration for freedom and independence” or actions that “destroy the people and displace them from lands whose identity they have struggled to preserve over generations.” It would appear that if there’s one thing Netanyahu and Abbas have in common, it’s the desire to keep Hamas from peddling October 7 as an accomplishment.

The privilege of maintaining the hands-off attitude toward the conflict adopted by the international community came to an end with the October 7 attack and the ensuing hostilities.  In the face of the intransigence of the Israeli Government on the question of Palestinian statehood and with no signs that the leading Israeli opposition parties will adopt a different position should they come to power, one of the few options remaining to save the two-state solution is recognition of Palestine.

The sad fact is that violence succeeded in rousing the world to the plight of the Palestinians when diplomacy faltered. This truth, however, in no way means that the wave of recognition should be halted. On the contrary, it is a much needed diplomatic achievement that could begin to restore the Palestinian people’s faith in a political process. Were the Israeli Government led by wise leaders, they would also recognize the opportunity to steer the Palestinians from violence to diplomacy and instill hope in the Israeli public by welcoming the affirmation of two states. Unfortunately, that option is outside the realm of possibility at the moment. Therefore, while unilateral recognition by individual states is to be applauded, the fact that approximately 75% of the UN member countries already recognize Palestine shows that it tends to be largely symbolic, and the big push should be for recognition of Palestine as a full member of the United Nations.

About the Author
Susie Becher is Managing Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, a collaborative quarterly published in Jerusalem; is Communications Director of the Policy Working Group, a team of senior academics, former diplomats, human rights defenders, and media experts who advocate for an end to the occupation and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and serves on the Steering Committee of Zulat, an activist think tank advocating for human rights and equality in Israel.