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On Sweden’s “Bold” Initiative

It was a welcome move, but only in some respects. The new center-left Swedish Prime Minister, Stefan Lofven, in his inaugural speech to Parliament indicated on October 3rd the intention of the Swedish government to recognize Palestinian statehood.

He explained that such a move mentioned in the platform of his party is in accord with promoting a two-state solution, and more significantly, that is to be “negotiated in accordance with international law.” The call for adherence to international law in future diplomacy is actually more of a step forward than is the announced intention of future recognition, which has so far received all the media attention and incurred the wrath of Tel Aviv.

To bring international law into future negotiations would amount to a radical modification of the ‘peace process’ that came into being with the Oslo Declaration of Principles in 1993.

The Israel/United States view was to allow any agreements between the parties to arise from a bargaining process, which is a shorthand for acknowledging the primacy of power, taking account of ‘facts on the ground’ (that is, the unlawful settlements) and diplomatic leverage (allowing the United States to fake the role of ‘honest broker’ while at the same time making sure that Israel’s interests are protected).

I suspect that this hopeful language suggesting the relevance of international law was inserted without any awareness of its importance or relevance. Such an interpretation is in line with Swedish official explanations of their initiative as a way of helping ‘moderate’ Palestinian leaders gain control of diplomacy, thereby facilitating the eventual goal of mutual coexistence based on two states.

It was presumed by Stockholm without any supportive reasoning, and against the weight of evidence and experience, that a Palestine state could emerge from a reinvigorated diplomacy. No mention was made of the settlements, separation wall, road network that have cut so deeply into the Palestinian remnant, which as of the 1967 borders was already 22% of historic Palestine, and less than half of what the UN partition plan had offered the Palestinians in 1947, which at the time seemed unfair and inconsistent with Palestinian rights under international law.

The United States Government spokesperson, Jan Paski, was careful to confirm the Oslo approach adopted by Washington that has been so harmful to Palestinian prospects for a viable state: “We certainly support Palestinian statehood, but it can come only through a negotiated outcome, a resolution of final status issues and mutual recognition by both parties.” Note the pointed absence of any reference to international law.

Beyond this, there is less and less reason to suppose that the Israeli government supports a process that leads to Palestinian statehood in any meaningful sense, although Netanyahu repeats in international settings the sterile mantra of saying that any such results can only come from direct negotiations between the parties, and he adds the Swedish initiative if carried out, is declared to be an obstacle to such an outcome.

So as not to arouse hopes, Netanyahu adds that no agreement will be reached that does not protect the national interests of Israel and ensure the security of Israeli citizens. When he speaks at home in Hebrew the prospect of a Palestinian state becomes as remote as the establishment of world government.

Unsurprisingly, the head of Israel’s opposition Labor Party, Isaac Herzog, was active in reinforcing Netanyahu’s objection to Sweden’s proposed course of action. Herzog in conversation with Lofven sought to dissuade Sweden from acting ‘unilaterally,’ suggesting that such a move was likely to produce undisclosed ‘undesirable consequences.’

So much for the Israeli ‘peace camp’ that now seems content to act as errand boy for state policy as led by the right-wing Likud.

The Palestinian Authority, short on good news since the Gaza attacks, at its highest levels (Abbas, Erakat) greeted the Swedish move as ‘remarkable and courageous,’ as well as ‘great.’ The PA leadership even suggested that recognition of Palestinian statehood could build pressure for a resumption of talks on a two-state solution as if that would be beneficial for Palestine.

Such sentiments turn a blind eye toward the Oslo record of failure from a Palestinian point of view, and quite the opposite for Israel.

What is the value of the Swedish proposed step, assuming that it takes place? 

Israel and the United States seemed poised to use full court pressure to persuade Sweden to delay indefinitely making the move, and Sweden has retreated to the extent that it has reassured the world that it is not planning to act ‘tomorrow morning’ and hopes to listen to the views of all interested governments and engage in dialogue before moving forward.

At the same time, the British Parliament is set to vote on October 13 on a non-binding resolution urging recognition by Britain of Palestinian statehood.

Even proposing recognition of Palestinian statehood is definitely a psychological boost for the Palestinian Authority, but it changes nothing on the ground, and likely makes Israel take some defiant steps such as provocatively issuing permits for additional housing units in the settlements, which it did in 2012 as retaliation for Palestine’s successful bid to be recognized by the UN General Assembly as a non-member observer state (similar to the status enjoyed by the Vatican).

Recognition also gives Palestine potential access to the International Criminal Court, which again worries Israel as it should, although the Palestinian Authority has so far held back from seeking to become a party to the ICC, and by so doing gain the capacity to request the prosecutor to investigate various allegations of Israeli war crimes, including the settlements.

In international law diplomatic recognition by states has been traditionally viewed as largely a matter of discretion. The United States withheld recognition from mainland China for decades after it had consolidated its governmental control over the territory and its population.

Palestine has been long recognized by at least 125 states, and enjoys diplomatic relations as if a state. UN membership presupposes statehood, but it is also highly politicized and subject to the veto by any permanent member of the Security Council. Indications are that, if necessary, the United States will stand alone in using its veto to block Palestine from becoming a member.

But why does Israel care so much as nothing changes on the ground?

There would seem to be three reasons, none very persuasive. Firstly, since Palestine badly wants to be a sovereign state and a UN member, it would make further concessions to Israel to obtain such a status in the event of further negotiations.

Secondly, Israel seems eager to have the formal capacity to deny Palestinian statehood in a full sense so as to allow for the future likely incorporation the West Bank into Israel when the opportune moment arrives. This is a course of action favored by the recently elected Israeli president, Reuven Rivlin, who offers Palestinians a supposedly benevolent ‘economic peace’ in exchange if they swallow their political pride.

Thirdly, recognition might give the Palestinian Authority more leverage at the UN and the ICC, and self-esteem in Palestinian circles, especially if other European Union members would follow the Swedish example. At some point down the line Israel’s prolonged occupation of Palestine would under these conditions come under increasing legal, moral, and political fire.

Yet from the perspective of the Palestinian people as distinct from the Palestinian Authority, does it make sense at this stage in their struggle to continue to act as if the two-state solution could still bring peace?

Israel’s feverish settlement activity of recent years seems to be a clear message that a viable sovereign Palestinian state is no longer in the cards.

In fact, Sweden seems to be playing the Oslo game after the game has ended for all practical purposes.

In other words, if Sweden’s act of recognition had been linked to Oslo’s failure it would be pointing the way toward a constructive turn in peace diplomacy, but to justify it as a step toward the two-state solution achieved by direct negotiations of the sort that has failed repeatedly for more than 20 years seems an ill-considered expression of political innocence on the part of the inexperienced new leadership in Stockholm, a gesture for peace undoubtedly meant in good faith, but seemingly without any awareness that the sick patient died years ago.

Richard Falk is an American professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University. He just completed a six-year term as United Nations Special Rapporteur on Palestinian human rights. He was appointed to this role by the UN Human Rights Council, in 2008. He is an associate at the Transnational Foundation for Future Research, where this essay was originally published.

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Richard Falk is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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