Prominent Israelis call on European parliamentarians to formally recognize a Palestinian state. But what kind of impact can European votes have when the real power broker in Israel-Palestine relations is still the U.S.?
Nearly 700 prominent Israelis, including former ambassadors, academics, IDF officers, top playwrights and poets, winners of the Israel Prize and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman have signed a letter appealing to the parliaments of various European countries to recognize Palestine in upcoming votes.
We the undersigned, Citizens of Israel who wish it to be a safe and thriving country, are worried by the continued political stalemate and by the occupation and settlements activities which lead to further confrontations with the Palestinians and torpedo the chances for a compromise.
It is clear that the prospects for Israel’s security and existence depend on the existence of a Palestinian state side by side with Israel. Israel should recognize the state of Palestine and Palestine should recognize the state of Israel, based on the June 4 1967 borders.
Your initiative for recognizing the state of Palestine will advance the prospects of peace and will encourage Israelis and Palestinians to bring an end to their conflict.
The petition was started just days before a discussion and vote over recognition of the State of Palestine in the UK Parliament in October. “From Thursday night to Sunday morning [before the vote on a Monday – DS], we had over 300 signatures,” explains Alon Liel, formerly an ambassador and later the Director General of the Israel Foreign Ministry, who joined with two other Israelis to lead the initiative. With the first critical mass of supporters, he told +972 Magazine, they sent the letter to contacts within the Liberal Democrat party. From there it found its way to others, and made an appearance in the heated discussion in Parliament. Labour MP Grahame Morris said:
…the day will come when the two-state solution, which I believe is supported by all parties on both sides of the house, will collapse and Israel will face a South African style struggle for equal voting rights. As soon as that happens, the state of Israel is finished.
At this point, Tory MP Cheryl Gillan added:
May I say that many people support the two-state solution? Will he also confirm that more than 300 Israeli figures signed a letter on Sunday urging this Parliament to vote in favor of the motion, and they included former Ministers, ex-diplomats and activists in Israel?
That vote passed overwhelmingly by MPs who attended, 274 to 12, in favor of the British government recognizing Palestine alongside the State of Israel. With no binding force the UK government is unlikely to take any action. Meanwhile, Israel tried to deride the vote as a “symbolic” gesture.
But the implication that symbolic equals insignificant is belied by developments in Europe since the vote was taken. Just a few weeks later, Sweden became the most important European country so far to formally recognize Palestine. The move prompted Israel to recall its ambassador for consultations.
Other European parliaments have dates set for votes on recognition. Denmark and Ireland are expected to hold parliamentary discussions and vote shortly. Spain will vote on November 18th; and just this week the French legislature decided to hold a vote on November 28th.
While the UK outcome was uncertain even hours beforehand, the strong majority in favor may set a climate for lawmakers in other countries.
The strongly worded letter, signed by both Jews and Arabs of Israel, may contribute to the sense that supporting Palestine is not about rejecting Israel. The version tailored and sent to a Danish Parliamentarian reads:
Denmark has been one of the first states to support the new state of Israel and one of the first to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. The actions of the Danish people in protecting Jewish lives during the war are well known and recognized.
The Parliament of Denmark is now confronted with an opportunity to continue its traditional support to Israel, by voting to call upon its government to recognize the state of Palestine side by side with Israel.
Towards this vote, we wish to convey to you the strong feelings of many Israelis, who signed a letter requesting your support to that recognition.
Alon Liel explained that these international networks support Israel. “They love Israel just as we love Israel. They’ve just been waiting for a sign like this from us,” – a sign indicating that Israelis also see a Palestinian state as a positive step for all.
He dismisses criticism that claims that asking for foreign communities to take a position is somehow non-democratic or disloyal. “The two-state process is being destroyed,” he argues, and it needs to be resurrected, but the sides are apparently unable to do so alone. “Just like Gaza. Who is going to reconstruct Gaza? The international community. The diplomatic process – we can’t rebuild it without help from abroad.”
As to the ubiquitous claim that criticism of Israeli policy is fueled by anti-Semitism, Liel scoffs. “You can’t pull one over on me. I’ve lived abroad for too many years, I know these people personally.” It is hard to imagine a more veteran actor in the international scene. Liel served the government for 31 years, was an ambassador in South Africa and several other African countries, held the top diplomatic post in Turkey, served as consulate in Atlanta and Chicago before becoming Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.
It’s ignorance to say criticism is anti-Semitism. The criticism of our policy comes from the left, and classic anti-Semitism is from the right. I can distinguish between those who hate me because I crucified Jesus and those who hate me because of the occupation. They’re not together at the same cocktail parties, they don’t even speak the same language.
His insistence that ignorance causes the conflation of criticism and anti-Semitism is somewhat forgiving, when such tropes are often consciously manipulated.
Still, the question remains what impact these European votes and recognitions can have when the real power broker in Israel-Palestine relations is the U.S. Symbolic gestures can indeed be empty – they become important when they have enough emotional resonance to galvanize critical masses from grassroots and elites, and when they spark action that gives flesh to skeletal ideas.
Palestinian statehood could be harder to ignore should those countries not only name Palestine but begin treating it as a sovereign state – politically, culturally, as well as in terms of trade and international relations. Should those countries treat Israel as the violator of sovereign territory of a recognized state, the limp rhetoric of settlement condemnation could grow policy-oriented teeth.
Liel has another vision. In South Africa, he says, pressure against apartheid spread primarily from Europe, catching fire among Western European countries between the 1970s and 80s. “After Europe got involved, and after there was a consensus, just weeks afterward the U.S. got in. Otherwise, it would have been just the U.S., left alone with apartheid.”
How long can America really hold out if, one by one, European countries tip the scales in favor of Palestine? Does it want to be ‘just the U.S., alone with the occupation?’
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