Monday, 6 October 2014

On the Official Israeli Reaction to Sweden's Plans to Recognize Palestine As A Sovereign State

My country has just gotten itself a new government, a rather frail coalition between Social Democrats and the Greens. It will be very dependent on compromises both with the Left party (which had hoped to be in the government, but were kept out by the new PM Stefan Löfvén) and the center-right parties, especially the Center party and the classic liberal Folkpartiet. In view of that, it perhaps came as a surprise (although the intention had been revealed well beforehand, in 2012) that Löfvén in his installation speech declared that the new government aims to recognise Palestine as a sovereign state. The declaration also spread rapidly around the world, as this would mean that Sweden joins the seven EU members which have already taken this step; Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Malta, Poland and Romania, plus Iceland as European nation to have done so. Internationally, however, the move is not very unique, as 134 out of 193 UN member states have taken it already, and the UN general assembly recognises Palestine as an observer member state since 2012. The affluent "Western" world, however, is mostly absent on that list. These and related facts can be found here.

Now, it should surprise no one that the reaction from the Israeli regime has been one of strong disappointment. Likewise, a number of organisations and individuals openly supporting current Israeli policy in my country, e.g. regarding upholding an unlawful occupation, running de facto apartheid policies in the thus occupied territories, and systematically allowing likewise illegal settlements and land theft in said territories. Many of these also condone the recent indiscriminate and brutal military attacks on Gaza, as well as the day-to-day brutality there as well as in the West Bank. However, these domestic Swedish protest have so far been rather confused and unsystematic, saying simultaneously that the step is meaningless and will make no difference, that it will undermine the peace process (in which case it would, it seems, make a difference), and that it will strengthen the political influence of Hamas – the extremist militant islamist sect currently controlling Gaza territory (which, of course, will not happen if the peace process is undermined, since then Israel will use military force against Hamas, who haven't got a chance in terms of any relevant military parameter). In sum: so far an incoherent mess that makes no sense.

But the official Israeli reaction is more puzzling. First, Israel foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman (also here, here, here):

"he regrets that the new prime minister was in a hurry to make statements on Sweden's position regarding recognition of a Palestinian state, apparently before he had time even to study the issue in depth," Lieberman's office quoted him as saying, in a statement issued late on Saturday.
A surprisingly amateurish attempt to question the competence of the new government, while not offering anything substantial as a reason for criticising the decision. But perhaps that was before Lieberman was made aware that the new Swedish foreign minister is the highly diplomatically experienced ex EU commissioner and UN special representative, Margot Wallström, in light of which the allegation becomes nothing but laughable.  In addition, the Social Democrat party is well-known to host in its ranks many other super-diplomats, several of which have worked on the middle eastern scene, such as Jan Eliasson and Rolf Eckéus. And, as I said, the plan on aiming for a Palestine recognition was declared already two years ago, something one would suppose the Israeli foreign ministry to be aware of.

Next out comes Lieberman's boss, Israel PM Benjamin Netanyahu, said to be:

"...opposed to any unilateral action that does not help to reach peace, but on the contrary just makes the prospect for it more distant," the premier's office said in a statement on Sunday.
 In distinction to Lieberman's rant, this statement at least tries to make an argument. The problem with the decision is apparently that it is "unilateral", apparently implying that a bilateral decision would be better. But what does this mean?

One interpretation is that BN questions any recognition of Palestine, which would not be followed by Palestine's recognition of Sweden. Indeed, that would be highly irregular, but this is hardly a very likely development, especially as the palestine Authority immediately reacted very positive to Löfvén's declaration.

Another interpretation is that the Israel PM holds that Sweden should not take its own decisions on which states to recognise, but first negotiate these issues with Israel (did anyone say "hubris"?). This would be an unorthodox idea of international politics and relations indeed, but hardly an idea that Israel subscribes to, unless it recently upgraded its foreign doctrines to claim the right to decide other sovereign nation states' businesses – which I seriously doubt.

A third interpretation is this: the problem is the unilateral situation of the Israel - Palestine situation. That would seem to follow from the principle of opposition to "any unilateral action". However, if that is indeed the position of PM Netanyahu, he should actually logically embrace and condone the Swedish plans. For if it is anything that would make the Israel- Palestine situation less "unilateral", it would be the wide recognition of a Palestinian state, as that would at the very least have Israel face a formally equal counterpart over the negotiation table. It would, moreover, make Israeli military actions currently used to prolong status quo more akin to formal acts of war, just as the rocket firing against Israeli territory by Hamas would be. That, my dear Benjamin Netanyaho, is more of a bilateral situation than the present one. Basically, this is also the reason that Löfvén and Wallström have stated in favour of their plan on recognition.

But will it promote a lasting and just peace?, one may ask. Hard to tell, of course, and for me personally this is the most relevant question. One may, however, make the following observation: More than four decades of Sweden not recognising Palestine's statehood has certainly not promoted anything in that direction. If anything, it has contributed to the ease in which a series of Israeli governments have been able to prolong their various illegal and/or inhumane policies, stated at the outset. This is at least some reason try another angle for a few decades ahead.