The Importance of Recognition – Even in Occupation

Norway, Spain, and Ireland recognized a Palestinian state that does not yet exist. This is why it still matters.

The Ramallah Municipality Building with flags of Spain, Ireland and Norway following their formal recognition of the State of Palestine, on May 24, 2024. Photo: Issam Rimawi/Anadolu via Getty Images

On Wednesday May 22. Norway, Spain and Ireland declared that they would recognize Palestine as a state on May 28. The recognition has now become official. During a 22 May press conference, Norwegian Prime Minister Jonas Gahr Støre and Foreign Minister Espen Barth Eide noted that the recognition was intended to advance the two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians “in the midst of war, with tens of thousands killed an injured.”

The two specified that the territorial demarcation between the State of Palestine and the State of Israel should be based on the pre-1967 borders, with Jerusalem as a shared capital of both. This means that a would-be Palestinian state would include the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, but the parties would have to agree on a final settlement regarding borders, including possible land swaps. It is therefore clear that recognition should not be seen as contrary to negotiations, but as a play into possible negotiations. This is similar to Spain’s and Ireland’s visions.

A change of strategies

The exile leadership of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) declared a “state of Palestine” in 1988. While many Arab states immediately recognized that declared state, the USA and European states did not. The latter have long maintained that any Palestinian state should be formed after a negotiated solution between the Israelis and Palestinians, as a reward. This formed the basis for the Oslo peace process, in which officials from the PLO and Israel entered into direct negotiations over a two-state solution.

The most notable achievement was the creation of a Palestinian Authority (PA), a quasi-state administration which since 1994 began taking control of Palestinian self-rule areas in The Gaza Strip and in the West Bank. After five years of negotiation, including a final settlement on borders, Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jerusalem, the PA was supposed to emerge as an independent Palestinian state.

However, the peace process quickly unraveled and broke down in 2000-1, and the question of Palestinian statehood has remained in limbo. The PA has shouldered on as an administration without a sovereign state to govern, lacking territorial contingency, economic independence, and – increasingly – the legitimacy of its own people. Following Hamas’ takeover of the Gaza Strip from the PA in 2007, the Palestinian leaderships have not been able to hold national elections.

Norway, Spain and Ireland’s recognition of Palestine as a state, indicates a growing awareness among European states that their idea of peace diplomacy – which hitherto has revolved around affirming commitments to a two-state solution without doing much to push for one – has amounted to very little. Rather than leveraging the promise of statehood as a reward for negotiations, the three states are attempting to use recognition as a way to jumpstart negotiation. Recognition, so the thinking goes, should uphold the hope of a possible solution.

The search for “moderate forces”

Norway sees recognition as “a means of supporting the moderate forces.” They do not see the coalition of Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor the Hamas movement as a part of any solution.

Like its Spanish and Irish partners, Norway views the PA administration in the West Bank as the most credible blueprint for a future Palestinian state and has coordinated its declaration with PA prime minister Muhammad Mustafa. On Sunday 26. Norway’s foreign minister handed over diplomatic papers to the former, who responded “Recognition means a lot for us. It is the most important thing that anybody can do for the Palestinian people […] It is a great deal for us.” Hamas also welcomed the decision.

The European trio do not appear to have any designated partner on the Israeli side of the fence. The Netanyahu administration condemned the recognition of Palestine, calling it a “reward for terrorism,” and recalled its ambassadors from the three aforementioned states.

Meanwhile, Israeli finance minister Bezalel Smotrich, threatened to cancel an agreement in which Norway takes part in facilitating the transfer of tax revenues to the chronically cash-strapped PA, which already struggles to pay salaries to its thousands of employees. He also demanded “punitive measures” from Netanyahu, such as building a new settlement “for every country that unilaterally recognizes a Palestinian state”. The viability of a two-state solution depends not only on a cessation of settlement expansion, but also on settlement withdrawal. Israel is vehemently against the latter, and the Gaza war has made this position even more trenchant.

The facts on the ground

Since the 1967 six-day war each Israeli government has invested substantial resources in establishing and expanding a network of settlements in the West Bank and East-Jerusalem. The settlement industry was given a significant boost when the Likud party came to power in 1977, which saw building settlements as a strategy to erase the distinction between Israel proper and its occupied territories, and to prevent the existence of a large contiguous Palestinian territory. This strategy has succeeded and stands as a failure of the international community in upholding the fourth Geneva convention prohibiting the movement of civilians into occupied territory.

Today, some 700,000 settlers live in close to 300 settlements across the West Bank and East Jerusalem. These are guarded by the Israeli army and have a network of roads and urban infrastructure that cuts through areas that the Oslo accords designated as under Palestinian self-rule. The European trio’s declaration is not only a recognition of a state that does not yet exist, but one that many Palestinians fail to imagine where could realistically be placed. Is the move merely a symbolic act?

The snowball is rolling

It would perhaps be naïve to assume that Norway, Spain, and Ireland’s declaration would have any greater impact than the 143 countries that recognized Palestine as a state before them. However, timing matters. At a time when the International Criminal Court (ICC) is looking to issue arrest warrants for central Israeli and Hamas leaders, and the International Court of Justice (ICJ), has called on Israel to halt its offensive against Rafah, pressure is mounting on the USA and European states to take a clearer stance in the question of Palestine. In this light, the European trio might very well become, as Palestinian political scientist Amjad Abu al-Ezz recently put it, a snowball rolling toward other countries.

The recognition does not alter facts on the ground in Israel/Palestine, yet it signifies a change in Western Europe. It is a sign that its foreign ministries are slowly coming to terms with the fact that thirty years of waiting for a two-state solution to happen, has not worked, and that a more pro-active approach on Palestinian statehood is needed. It is a hail Mary pass in the dark, a desperate attempt to level out the diplomatic playing field. If little else, it is an insistence that there is still hope despite it all.

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