In October 2014, Sweden’s new left-wing government became the first member of the European Union (EU) to recognize the State of Palestine. Previously, Malta and Cyprus had recognized Palestine, but that was before they joined the EU. In addition, a number of Central European member states have also recognized Palestine when they were part of the Soviet Union. It is a bit unclear what the status of their recognitions is today, as some of these states (the Czech Republic in particular) have emerged as Israel’s closest allies in Europe.

Israel had initially feared that Sweden’s recognition would unleash an avalanche of similar recognitions and other types of actions against the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories. While no avalanche was unleashed against Israel, the Swedish recognition did create a certain momentum for the Palestinians, as parliaments in a number of other EU member states (Ireland, the United Kingdom, France, Portugal, Spain and Italy) adopted resolutions supporting Palestinian statehood and urged their governments to follow Sweden’s lead. The big questions for the future are whether other EU members will follow Sweden and what consequences that might have for resolving the conflict.

As of this writing (March 2015), no other EU government has so far recognized Palestine. However, if the historical record is to guide us, there are strong reasons to believe that other EU members and even states outside Europe will follow Sweden’s lead and recognize Palestine. My research on the role of the EU (and its predecessor the EC) in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is full of examples where the EU, and Sweden in particular, has played important historical roles in the conflict by formulating new policy departures that were later adopted by the United States, the Arab League and even the Israelis and Palestinians themselves when they were seen as less controversial (Persson 2015a:91).

Important Historical Precedents

In its first official statement regarding the conflict, the EU’s predecessor the EC called for a just peace in the Middle East in 1971 without even mentioning the Palestinians as a party to the conflict (Bulletin of the EC 6-1971:31). The mere mention of the word “Palestinian” during the early 1970s was regarded as a directly hostile expression against Israel. Golda Meir, Israel’s prime minister at the time, infamously said that there were no “Palestinians.” Israel therefore reacted strongly when the EC after the 1973 war and the subsequent oil crisis for the first time used the term “Palestinians” in an official statement, even recognizing the Palestinians’ “legitimate rights” without elaborating further which these were (Bulletin of the EC 10-1973:106). Abba Eban, Israel’s charismatic foreign minister at the time, formulated what in the future would become Israel’s three standard replies whenever the EU or its members issued declarations it did not like: 1) that they are counterproductive; 2) that they are ill-timed; and 3) that the EU should stop dictating the conditions for peace if it wants to be relevant (Greilsammer & Weiler 1984:135). All three were used against Sweden after it recognized Palestine.

The EC’s next major policy departure came in 1977 when it recognized the Palestinians as a “people,” with a “national identity” and right to a “homeland” (Bulletin of the EC 6-1977:62). Then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin knew all too well what was meant by expressions such as “homeland” — a term which the Zionists themselves had used in their struggle to establish Israel.

The EC/EU’s most important declaration on the conflict, the seminal 1980 Venice Declaration, recognized the Palestinians’ “right to selfdetermination” and Europe’s special role in the conflict. Most significantly, it called for a dialogue with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). My colleague Rory Miller of King’s College, London, has analyzed in great detail material in various archives showing how Israeli leaders reacted to the Venice Declaration. Begin compared the declaration to Hitler’s Mein Kampf and then-Foreign Minister Yitzhak Shamir (who later succeeded him as prime minister) called it “a shame and scandal for Europe.” Shimon Peres, the opposition leader at the time, dismissed it as “a piece of paper” that changed nothing on the ground (quotes from Miller 2011:92).

In its 1999 Berlin Declaration, the EU endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state but without explicitly recognizing it. Worth noting is that the U.S. did not officially endorse a Palestinian state until 2002. In 2009, despite heavy Israeli pressure, then-Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt led the EU to issue a declaration which endorsed Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state (Council of the European Union 2009).

What European countries and, in particular, social democratic leaders like Olof Palme of Sweden and Bruno Kreisky of Austria, realized early on was that a part of the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was to legitimize the PLO and its leader Yasser Arafat as acceptable negotiation partners for Israel and the U.S. They succeeded. Peres, for example, made a political U-turn and personally led Israel’s negotiations with the PLO. Today, in his capacity as Israel’s most senior elder statesman, he is constantly warning his country of the consequences of not signing an agreement similar to the Venice Declaration (See, for example Eldar 2011).

The last four decades have seen an evolving European diplomacy toward the conflict centered around the idea of resolving the conflict through a two-state solution, meaning an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. As every single EU member strongly supports this strategy, it is not true, as critics often say, that EU members cannot agree on how to solve the conflict. In fact, there is complete agreement in the EU on the overall framework for a resolution, but fundamental differences still exist between EU members when approaching the conflict on a more everyday and practical level, especially in crisis situations such as the 2006 Second Lebanon War, the 2008-2009 Gaza war, the 2011 Palestinian bid for statehood in the UN and more generally in sensitive matters related to Israel.

EU’s Normative and Legitimizing Power in the Conflict

The idea of the EU as a normative and legitimizing power can often be traced back to François Duchêne, who argued in the early 1970s that Europe was a different kind of power, relying on political and economic means rather than on military ones (Duchêne 1973:19). Duchêne’s conceptualization of Europe as a civilian power was picked up by Ian Manners (2002) three decades later in his seminal article on Normative Power Europe (NPE). While Duchêne had focused on the economic dimension of Europe as a civilian power, Manners was more interested in its normative aspects. Manners defined normative power as “the ability to define what passes as ‘normal’ in world politics.” (Manners 2002:236) Just as Duchêne’s ideas of Europe as a civilian power had reflected the Cold War milieu of the 1970s, Manners’ normative power approach was a reflection of the post- Cold War era.

In his 2002 article, Manners argued that the EU had gradually developed a normative framework based on certain values that it tried to promote in its foreign policies. He identified five such core values: peace, liberty, democracy, human rights and the rule of law (Manners 2002:242). While Manners was wrong in a broad sense because Western interests in the Middle East, including the EU’s, have generally revolved around energy, trade and terrorism — issues widely considered to be guided by realpolitik in international politics rather than by normative values, it can still be argued that the EU is a significant normative and legitimizing power in the conflict. With its 28 member states, the EU is by far the largest bloc of liberal democracies in the world. As such, it can collectively legitimize or delegitimize many features of international affairs, including in the Israeli- Palestinian conflict. Many other states in the world pay close attention to how the EU countries act, vote and speak in various international forums regarding the conflict (Persson 2015a:151). Israel refers to this group of countries — the 28 EU members plus a dozen or two other liberal democracies, including the U.S., Canada, Norway, Switzerland, Japan, Australia and New Zealand — as the “moral majority” of states in international affairs (Susser 2012:11). As such, their support is crucial for Israel, both because it wants to be part of this group of liberal democracies and because much of the rest of the world are longtime supporters of the Palestinians.

The EU’s Increased Willingness to Use Its Power

Several events in the conflict over the recent years have shown the EU’s normative and legitimizing power and the EU’s growing willingness to use it. In 2010-11 , when it became clear that the Palestinians were planning to seek formal United Nations recognition of a Palestinian state, Europe, and more specifically the EU, quickly emerged as the crucial battlefields for whether the bid would succeed or not. Since most of the countries in the rest of the world had already made up their minds, overwhelmingly in favor of the Palestinians, the EU with its 28 votes in the UN was indeed seen as the critical middle ground by all sides involved, including the U.S. As an Israeli official told the International Crisis Group in August 2011, a month before the Palestinians were to submit their application to the UN: “Europe is vital because Europe is the key to international legitimacy. The U.S. is the key to the effective exercise of power, but the U.S. cannot confer legitimacy. The Europeans alone can do that (quoted in International Crisis Group 2011:30).

In the same report, a PA official made it clear how important EU legitimacy was for them as well:

Netanyahu has said that the test is what the EU does. We accept the challenge. It is critical for us to have as widespread backing as possible from European countries. Without that, a UNGA vote will look like a defeat (quoted in International Crisis Group 2011:32).

However, the failure of the EU members to present a united position either on the 2011 or the 2012 Palestinian bid for statehood in the UN, of course, significantly weakens its normative and legitimizing power. If all EU members had backed the Palestinian bids for statehood in the UN, it would have put enormous pressure on the U.S. to follow suit.

The 2013 EU guidelines against the settlements — arguably the most significant EU action in the conflict since the 1980 Venice Declaration — are perhaps the best concrete example of how the EU’s normative and legitimizing power works in practice. The guidelines were never about money, neither for Israel nor for the EU, but about setting an example that others would follow in delegitimizing the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Symbolically resembling a 21st-century Balfour Declaration, they were the first detailed declaration ever by a major international actor against the settlements. That was why Binyamin Netanyahu was quoted as saying that Israel’s failure to stop them represented his country’s biggest diplomatic failure since he entered politics three decades ago (quoted in Ravid 2013). For anyone familiar with Israeli politics, that said a lot. As this author concluded in an article in Haaretz:

For those of us following the conflict from Europe, Netanyahu’s comment proved that the European Union can be as much of a “player” as it wants in the conflict instead of just being a “payer,” funding an increasingly irrelevant ”peace process” that everyone can see is leading nowhere (Persson 2015b).

“If Not Now, When?”

If the Palestinian state-building project fails, as it is doing now, it will almost certainly move the conflict out of the two-state solution paradigm and into an uncertain future (Persson 2015a:141). The big fear today among policy makers, academics, intellectuals and others is of course that a Palestinian state will never be established, not that it will be established too early. Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström alluded to this when she said: “Some will state this decision comes too soon. I am afraid, rather, that it is too late” (Wallström 2014). She also said: “If not now, when?” (Wallström 2014) and, finally, that she hoped the recognition would be a “positive injection into the dynamics of the Middle East peace process” and that other countries would follow Sweden’s lead (Wallström 2014). As I have shown in this article, the EU and individual European countries have a significant normative and legitimizing power in the conflict. Swedish and European diplomacy have historically paved the way for new policy departures in the conflict, which were later adopted by others, including by the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, when they were seen as less controversial. It remains to be seen whether other states, inside and outside of Europe, will follow Sweden’s recognition of Palestine. If the historical record is any guide, the answer is yes.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has already lasted for well over a century. If no Palestinian state is established, it will probably go on for another 100 years. Preventing this was the basic logic behind the Swedish government’s decision to recognize Palestine.

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