The Historical Case for Europe to Recognize Palestine

02/20/2015 10:28 am ET | Updated Apr 21, 2015

Up until the June 1967 war, Israel had generally had strong support in Europe based on political, historical, moral and legal claims to the land. Two decades earlier, most West European countries had been among the first to recognize Israel when the state was founded in 1948. That recognition is as strong as ever and almost no prominent European politician, intellectual or academic would today question Israel's right to exist within its internationally recognized borders.

During the June 1967 war, Israel tripled its size and the occupation of what the international community sees as the Palestinian territories began. The occupation has now lasted for almost 50 years, despite the fact that not a single country in the world recognizes it. The same is true for Israel's annexations of the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem. As the first 20 years of the occupation, between 1967 and 1987, saw comparatively little violence, observers in Europe back then talked about a light, benign or even enlightened occupation. This talk quickly disappeared after the outbreak of the first intifada in Gaza in 1987, when then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin gave the Israeli security forces order to break arms and legs of the stone-throwing Palestinian youngsters, which they also did.

Israel's main dilemma was -- and still is -- that it wants the land, particularly the West Bank and East Jerusalem, but not the people -- the Palestinians -- living there. Much of Israel's policies towards the Palestinians after 1967 have been based on maneuvering between cultivating Palestinian land for military bases, civilian settlements, infrastructure, agriculture and water, while at the same time trying to renounce its responsibility for the Palestinian population, particularly in Gaza and the West Bank, slightly less so in East Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. This Israeli maneuvering was the logic that guided much of the peace process over the past two decades, giving the Palestinians limited self-rule in 40 percent of the West Bank, while keeping the rest for itself. Very few in Israel's political establishment and even fewer among its population genuinely want to occupy the Palestinians and control their lives, but they have no choice as long as they want to keep the land.

The opinions in Europe, both the political and popular, began to change after the 1973 war with the subsequent oil crisis. This is also when the construction of settlements first started to accelerate and a few years later, Israel got its first rightwing government under Menachem Begin. In my research about the role of the European Union (and its predecessor the EC) in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I demonstrate how the EC/EU early on adopted parts of the Palestinian narrative of the conflict. In its first official statement regarding the conflict, the EC in 1971 called for a just peace in the Middle East without even mentioning the Palestinians as a party to the conflict. Just mentioning the word "Palestinian" during this time would be regarded as a directly hostile expression against Israel. Israel had at this time a Prime Minister, Golda Meir, whose most memorable expression was that there were no Palestinians.

The reactions from Israel were therefore not slow to come 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 their "legitimate rights" without specifying which these were. Israel's then Foreign Minister, the charismatic Abba Eban, quickly formulated what would be Israel's three standard replies whenever the EU or its members issue declarations it did not like; 1) that they are counter-productive; 2) that they are ill-timed; and 3) that the EU should stop dictating the conditions for peace if it wants to be relevant. All three were used against Sweden after it became the first EU member to recognize Palestine in October last year. Parliaments in other EU member states soon followed and urged their governments to do the same.

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". Israel's Prime Minister at the time, Menachem Begin, knew all too well what was meant with expressions such as "homeland" -- a term which the Zionists themselves had used in their struggle to establish Israel. In 1980, the EC issued the Venice Declaration, which recognized the Palestinians' "right to self-determination" and called for a dialogue with the 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 his Foreign Minister, Yitzhak Shamir, (who later succeeded him as Prime Minister) called it "a shame and scandal for Europe". Then opposition leader, Shimon Peres, dismissed it as "a piece of paper" that changed nothing on the ground. Peres then made a political u-turn a few years later and personally led Israel's negotiations with the PLO. Today, in his capacity as Israel's most senior statesman, Peres is constantly warning his country of the consequences of not signing an agreement similar to the Venice Declaration.

In its 1999 Berlin Declaration, the EU endorsed the idea of a Palestinian state, but without explicitly recognizing it. In 2009, despite heavy Israeli pressure, then Swedish Foreign Minister Carl Bildt, led the EU to issue a declaration with endorsed Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state. European countries and particularly social democratic leaders like Olof Palme of Sweden and Bruno Kriesky of Austria early on realized 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 United States.

After decades of uphill battles and despite massive criticism from all involved parties, including the Palestinians themselves, it is now clear that many of the ideas originally articulated in the EC/EU's declarations are no longer seen as controversial. History clearly shows that European leaders were right and Israeli leaders were wrong regarding historical Palestinian rights. Even if a solution to the conflict is far away at the moment and a Palestinian state may never materialize, it is important to underscore the enormous potential for the EU to be a legitimizing and normative power in the conflict. If all EU members would recognize a Palestinian state, it would put enormous pressure on the U.S. to do the same. My research clearly shows that the EC/EU has played an historical vanguard role in the conflict by formulating new policy departures that were later adopted by the U.S., the Arab League and others when they were seen as less controversial.

It is important to remember that Egypt's and Syria's attack in 1973 helped lead Israel to give back the occupied Sinai to Egypt and to peace between the two countries. The first intifada of 1987 led to the Oslo agreements in 1993-94 with limited Palestinian self-rule. Hezbollah's long struggle against the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon finally led Israel to pull out in 2000. The second intifada between 2000-2004 significantly contributed to the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the dismantling of settlements there in 2005. Both Hezbollah and Hamas have gotten hundreds and even a thousand prisoners back for captured Israelis. All of Israel's enemies know that their violent strategies have paid off -- and precisely therefore is it important to show that even diplomacy can work against Israel.

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. The rest of Europe should now follow.

Anders Persson is a political scientist at Linnaeus University, Sweden. He is also expert commentator on the Middle East on Swedish TV and radio. His latest book The EU and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict 1971-2013: In Pursuit of a Just Peace was recently published by Lexington Books in the United States