by Alon Liel
There are moments in a retired diplomat’s life when he has to give up the diplomatic protocol and say publicly, loud and clear, what is going on in his mind. This period defines such a moment. After three decades of diplomatic service on behalf of the State of Israel, in addition to years of military service in defense of the state, there is no doubt in my mind that I should now speak up.
As I see it today, the 47-year occupation of the West Bank (I no longer have to say Judea and Samaria anymore, as government guidelines require) poses the gravest threat to the State of Israel. I do not mean a physical threat but a spiritual, moral one: a threat of the country losing its original identity. I dare to say this is a greater threat than the Iranian one, which definitely looks quite frightening. Nor do I have any doubt that the solution to this occupation threat has laid before us for many years: it is the coexistence of two states — Israel and Palestine — based on the 1967 borders, living side by side as peacefully as possible.
European Recognition of Palestine
A lot could still be done internationally in order to achieve this goal of a two-state solution. In October 2014, Sweden spearheaded a movement to recognize the State of Palestine. The national parliaments of Great Britain, France (both houses), Ireland (both houses), Spain, Portugal, Luxemburg, Belgium and Italy, as well as the European Parliament itself, have followed, calling upon their governments to recognize the State of Palestine. I extend my most sincere gratitude to Prime Minister Kjell Stefan Löfven of Sweden for launching this campaign.
Some European parliaments and governments, however, still prefer to defer recognition in the belief that recognition of Palestinian statehood should only come after Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. They are wrong in their assessment. The current Israeli government is placing substantial obstacles in the way of ending the conflict. The ongoing expansion of civilian settlements and illegal outposts is just one major example.
The current refusal by both sides to resume bilateral negotiations is a result of the wide gap opened during the last decade between their positions on the core issues in dispute. Under such circumstances, conditioning recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state on the successful completion of negotiations only helps to perpetuate the occupation.
Public opinion in Europe has clearly reached the conclusion that concrete action is necessary. Europeans see Israel’s supposedly temporary occupation lasting nearly half a century now with no end in sight, while Israeli control over the West Bank only becomes tighter with every year that passes, further denying the Palestinian people their basic right to freedom and dignity. The loud and clear voice, sounded by 12 European Parliaments in favor of state recognition of Palestine is absolutely critical. Future debates in Scotland, Norway and Germany prove that we are only in the middle of this important recognition wave. The Parliaments of Finland, Slovenia and Switzerland have also started to debate the recognition issue.
The European movement toward recognition has also shown that leaders of some European states are still reluctant to confront Israel directly. British Prime Minister David Cameron, who abstained from his parliament’s vote, said his government’s position is clear and won’t change (a possible victory by Ed Miliband in the May elections might change this position quite dramatically). German Chancellor Angela Merkel announced that her country will not support recognizing Palestine, claiming that it harms the efforts towards negotiations. Merkel conditioned recognition of a sovereign Palestinian state on the successful completion of bilateral negotiations (which do not yet appear to be on the horizon). Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning- Schmidt blocked the vote in the Danish Parliament. Mo r e o v e r, t h e Du t c h government did its best to convince its parliament to avoid voting in favor of recognition.
It is usually the same story everywhere — governments work “by interests,” and Israel is obviously much stronger than the Palestinian Authority and as such much more important to the European rulers. The public, however, acts differently, and moral considerations play a much more important role with the public than with the governments.
International Recognition of Palestine Is Essential for Israel’s Democratic Nature
Over two decades of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993 did not succeed in bringing peace any closer to reality. The distance between the two sides has only widened over time, and any trust that existed between them has evaporated. Senior ministers in the Netanyahu government have enthusiastically delegitimized and alienated their Palestinian partner — Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) — instead of trying to build a strong relationship and create a peaceful atmosphere conducive to genuine and serious negotiations.
The only possibility for Israelis and Palestinians to sit at the table again and hold sincere discussions is for the international community as a whole to first recognize a Palestinian state. Only such recognition can level the diplomatic playing field and bring about the much-needed “parity of esteem” between the two sides.
The European public is making its voice heard, not only for the two-state solution but, in fact, for Europe’s own dignity. It is imperative that European leaders listen to their public’s courageous call, rising at this moment across every country in Western Europe.
West Bank Settlements as an Obstacle
The international community today holds the key to a change in the Israeli position — away from ongoing, everlasting occupation toward constructive confidence-building measures. The daily reality on the ground in both Israel and Palestine is currently dominated and dictated by the West Bank settlements and their expansion. Separate roads for Israelis and Palestinians, separate legal systems, restriction of movement for Palestinians, limited water resources — all are the result of unceasing Israeli military control of a civilian population of 2.5 million people. If 20 or even 10 years ago, many Israelis saw the West Bank occupation as a temporary situation, many young Israelis today see it as an eternal fact.
Thus, the 20 European countries that have recently published warnings urging their citizens and companies to refrain from conducting business with the settlements, have taken an important step in the right direction. These public warnings in Europe acknowledge the expansion of the settlements as a primary obstacle to peace and as a real threat to the two-state solution.
The future of the State of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state depends on the establishment of a viable Palestinian state whose borders with Israel are based on the pre-1967 Green Line, with mutually agreedupon land swaps. It is important, therefore, that the international community at large, and the European Union in particular, continue along the path of actively disengaging from the settlements.
To Israel’s friends all over the world reading this today, I can confidently say that only the creation of a Palestinian state will save us from our continuing down the slippery slope leading to an Israeli apartheid. Furthermore, international recognition of a Palestinian state at this stage does not mark an end to negotiations, but rather their beginning. Negotiations under such new circumstances would take place between two internationally recognized entities, rather than between an occupying country and the population under its control.
A Combination of External and Internal Forces Can Lead to a Breakthrough
I am part of a group of over 1,000 Israeli peace activists who have come together to support this European momentum toward state recognition of Palestine. We signed a petition that already has been sent to the parliaments that voted, and will be on its way to every additional European parliament that will vote on the issue.
Refusing to recognize Palestine as a state at this stage is tantamount to rewarding Israel for its ongoing occupation and the continued erasure of the pre-1967 border. The contemporary Israeli leadership has no internal incentive to change its policies. Israeli public opinion has shifted to the right. The word “peace” was not mentioned in the recent Israeli election campaign. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu even promised the Israeli voter that while he is in office there will be no Palestinian State. This being the internal Israeli reality, only the creation of a different international environment can lead to a diplomatic breakthrough for Israelis and Palestinians alike.
Israel must be confronted by the reality that continuation of prolonged occupation and settlement construction will bring about broad international recognition of Palestine that is not dependent on bilateral negotiations. The overall recognition of a Palestinian state and its acceptance as a member state of the United Nations might also prevent more painful cycles of violence and improve the quality of life for both nations, although this is not guaranteed by any means. In any case, the security risk for Israel is worth taking. Even if violence does not cease, Israel remains strong enough to ensure its security, as was just proven once again in another tragic Gaza war in the summer of 2014. This is a risk we Israelis should take. It is the unfortunate result of both Israelis and Palestinians losing their ability to generate a peaceful solution on their own.
Post-World War II Europe is highly attentive to the issue of human rights. The Scandinavian public (student organizations and labor unions for example) led the fight against South African apartheid, and the rest of the Western world soon followed. When it comes to the quest for Israeli- Palestinian peace, European human rights and peace activists are once again paving the way. They realize the need to step in where the U.S. has failed. It is not enough to just condemn settlement construction and consistently urge both sides to make peace. Prompt, concrete action is needed now — neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians can afford to wait any longer.
True Friends of Israel Will Raise Their Voices Loud and Clear
Israel is in need of true friends in the international community, friends who will bravely raise their voices, loud and clear. Only by taking a firm stand to recognize the legitimate rights of both Palestinians and Israelis alike can we effect a dramatic change in the official Israeli and Palestinian positions and bring about an end to the occupation and to the conflict as a whole.