Can European Recognition Bring Palestinian Statehood Any Closer?

The decision by Spain, Norway and Ireland to recognize an independent Palestinian state reflects growing exasperation with the Israel of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, even from traditional friends, and suggests that international pressure on him will grow.

It does not, however, make it inevitable that other larger European states will follow suit. This year President Emmanuel Macron of France has said such recognition is “not a taboo,” a position reiterated by the French Foreign Ministry on Wednesday. In February, David Cameron, Britain’s foreign secretary, said that such recognition “can’t come at the start of the process, but it doesn’t have to be the very end of the process.”

Those were small steps, although beyond anything they have said previously, but far short of recognition of a Palestinian state itself. If Europe were unified, with the major states joining in recognition, leaving the United States isolated in rejecting such a step, then it could have a greater impact, but that stage is far from being reached.

“This decision must be useful, that is to say allow a decisive step forward on the political level,” Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné said in a statement about potential recognition. “France does not consider that the conditions have been met to date for this decision to have a real impact on this process.”

France, in other words, will wait. So, too, will Germany, whose support for Israel, rooted in atonement for the Holocaust, is second only to that of the United States. The decision of Spain, Norway and Ireland has made one thing clear: There will be no European unity, or at least aligned timing, on the question of recognition of a Palestinian state before such a state exists on the ground.

Nor will there be agreement between trans-Atlantic allies. Like Israel, the United States remains adamant that recognition of a Palestinian state must come through negotiation between the two parties. Otherwise the mere act of recognition changes nothing on the ground, where day by day conditions deteriorate.

Mr. Netanyahu’s life’s work has been largely built around the avoidance of a two-state agreement, even to the point of past support for Hamas intended to obstruct such an outcome. That seems unlikely to change, unless the United States can somehow triangulate Saudi normalization of relations with Israel, a vague Israeli verbal commitment to a process ending in two states and the end of the war in Gaza.

“To any prime minister but Netanyahu, the U.S. offer is very attractive,” said Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, who noted that an end to the Gaza war would inevitably bring an official inquiry into responsibility for the Oct. 7 disaster and confront Mr. Netanyahu with the fraud and corruption charges against him. “But for his own personal reasons, he balks at any postwar significant Palestinian role in governing Gaza.”

Leaders of the three European states recognizing Palestine said they were determined to keep the two-state idea alive. “We’re not going to allow the possibility of the two-state solution to be destroyed by force,” said Pedro Sánchez, the Spanish prime minister.

Those were stirring words. It seems possible that at a time of terrible suffering — in the ruins of Gaza and under what is widely seen as the ineffective and corrupt rule of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank — the recognition will provide a moral lift to Palestinians pursuing their right to self-determination.

But the reality is that a divided Europe has had little or no real leverage over, or impact on, the conflict for some time.

It has been a marginal player since Israeli-Palestinian peace talks in the early 1990s resulted in the Oslo accords. The only voice today that Israel will listen to is America’s — and even there Mr. Netanyahu has proved defiant of late.

“The Europeans really have no influence,” Mr. Rabinovich said. “The recognition of a Palestinian state is purely symbolic and changes nothing. If they sent 30,000 European troops to Gaza to end the war, it would be different, but we know that if 10 of them were killed, they would all leave immediately.”

The recognition comes in a week when the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court requested arrest warrants for Mr. Netanyahu and his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, for alleged war crimes and crimes against humanity in Gaza, at the same time as he sought warrants for Hamas leaders. The requests are still subject to approval by court judges.

The United States called the I.C.C. prosecutor’s decision “shameful,” whereas France said it “supports the International Criminal Court, its independence and the fight against impunity in all situations” — another possible sign of allied disunity as the war festers. But Mr. Séjourné, the foreign minister, later said the warrants “must not create an equivalence” between Hamas, which he called a terrorist group, and Israel.

In response to a case brought by South Africa, the International Court of Justice, which judges cases between states, not individuals, has already ordered Israel to prevent its forces from committing or inciting genocidal acts.

Pressure on Israel, in other words, is growing. So, too, is its isolation. Mr. Netanyahu’s decision, with his own political and judicial fate at stake, to draw out the war and decline to lay out a day-after plan for Gaza comes at a heavy price.

A fundamental question remains: Will all the condemnation bring a change in Israel’s firm position that the war over Hamas must be won, including in Rafah? Or will it entrench that position as resentment grows at what is widely seen in Israel as unforgivable European moral equivalency between the terrorists of Hamas and Israel’s democratic state?

Some fierce opponents of Mr. Netanyahu, whose far-right coalition has a shrinking constituency in Israel, have been so outraged by the I.C.C. prosecutor’s seemingly equating the Israeli leader with Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader within Gaza and mastermind of the Oct. 7 attack, that they have felt obliged to rally to the Israeli leader’s side.

“Today’s decision sends a message to Palestinians and the world: Terrorism pays,” Israel Katz, the Israeli foreign minister, said in a scathing response to the three states’ recognition of Palestinian statehood, adding that there would be consequences.

There is little question that the Palestinian cause, dormant until the terrorist violence of Oct. 7, is now front and center once again in Western capitals and beyond.

The attack on Israel, and Israel’s devastating bombardment of Gaza in response, have shaken the world out of its torpor over an intractable conflict. The Biden administration, along with European powers, had scarcely mentioned a two-state outcome in the preceding years, believing the Palestinian issue could be finessed in some wider Middle Eastern normalization of relations with Israel.

That proved to be wishful thinking.

Two peoples, Israelis and Palestinians, battling for the same narrow sliver of land between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River, remain the inalienable core of the conflict. Neither is going away; each believes its claim is irrefutable. Now, as a wider regional confrontation appears possible, a scramble to revive the two-state idea has occurred even as the conditions for it appear less favorable than ever.

The recognition of a Palestinian state by Spain, Norway and Ireland is part of that scramble, which may have come too late. It reflects a widespread feeling that “enough is enough.” It is part of a global exasperation that might contribute to forward momentum if a multitude of things change — not least the replacement of the current Israeli and Palestinian leadership, the end of the war and the establishment of some governing authority in Gaza that has nothing to do with Hamas.

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