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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Europe’s Premature Recognition of a Palestinian State

Filed under: Europe and Israel, Israel, Palestinians
Publication: Dore Gold Articles

Israel Hayom

Right now, it does not look as though the Palestinian residents of the West Bank want to start a third initifada in September. A study by the World Bank published in April 2011 reported that the economy in the West Bank grew by nearly 8 percent in 2010. True, the most visible aspects of the economic boom in the Palestinian cities, especially in hotel construction and new restaurants, in recent years have only enriched a limited sector of society. Nonetheless, Palestinian society would have a great deal to lose if it decided on a full scale confrontation with the Israel Defense Forces like the one the Palestinian Authority initiated 11 years ago, which quickly deteriorated into large-scale violence, including a wave of suicide attacks across Israeli cities. The mood on the ground has changed.

But how would the current situation be influenced if the Palestinian leadership goes to the U.N. to seek the adoption of a resolution that affirms their right to declare a state? The Oslo Accords established that the Palestinians must negotiate with Israel the demarcation of their future borders. What if a new U.N. resolution pre-determines the outcome of any future negotiations on borders and actually states what they are to be? Europe’s vote will be crucial, for its support for such a resolution would provide it with the level of international backing that it would obtain if it was adopted on the basis of a majority of non-aligned states alone, like Cuba, Zimbabwe and Yemen. Moreover, if European states went a step further, each recognizing the Palestinian state on a bilateral basis, while leaving its many of the key disputes with Israel unresolved, they would need to consider the impact of their decision.

The international community has had experience with this very question of what is called “premature recognition” of states in the past, particularly in areas where boundaries are in dispute. Right at the time Yugoslavia broke up in 1991, the European Community, the former name of the European Union, decided to delay recognition of any of the new states until they committed themselves to meeting certain criteria with regard to their future relations with the neighbors. Looking for the factors that led to the Bosnian War, the late Richard Holbrooke, who was the architect of the Dayton Agreement, noted in his memoirs that it was important to look closely at the role of Germany at the time, which broke ranks with the rest of Europe and pressed for the premature recognition of Croatia. What followed was a chain reaction across the Balkans that led to the outbreak of war, as each former Yugoslav republic scrambled to alter its borders while engaging in ethnic cleansing to solve its minority problems.

In order to avert this scenario from developing, the European Community tried, though not always successfully, to institute a number of pre-conditions that had to be met before they would recommend the to recognition of the new states that emerged after Yugoslavia broke up. A new state had to commit itself that it had no territorial claims against it neighbors. An important aspect of that pre-condition to recognition for a state was a commitment to refrain from any hostile propaganda implying that it retained territorial demands. European states also made protection of human rights one of the criteria that had to be met before recognition was granted. There was a specific demand that they guarantee the rights of ethnic and national minorities. As a result, Croatia had to amend its constitution before it became eligible for recognition by European countries and for their support of its membership in the U.N. Other former republics of Yugoslavia complied with these European criteria as well.

The situation in Israel and the West Bank is not the same as it was in the Balkans in the early 1990s. Nonetheless, there are lessons from the European experience that need to be considered if a Palestinian state is to be prematurely recognized. For example, a U.N. General Assembly resolution might be legally non-binding, but it could provide the Palestinians with the sense that there has been a new allocation of territory along the pre-1967 lines with full international backing. There are still large parts of the West Bank, like Area C, where Israel exercises full security control and where its most vital military facilities are located. An effort by Palestinian organizations to unilaterally take over parts of Area C in response to a U.N. resolution would be strongly resisted by Israel. Part of the Palestinian leadership would undoubtedly exploit the situation, claiming that the international community has granted it these territories. The situation could easily result in an escalatory spiral. The propensity for such an outburst of violence would increase if Palestinian expectations were rresponsibly elevated by what happens at the U.N. this fall.

Unfortunately, the caution that Europe learned was necessary from its experience in the Balkans has not been applied in the case of the Palestinians, who clearly are not able to meet the pre-conditions for recognition and U.N. membership that were used in Europe. First and foremost, how can the Palestinian Authority meet even the most minimal standards that Europe demanded in the past in the area of human rights, if the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement goes ahead? The 1988 Hamas Charter, which was never changed, explicitly calls for the destruction of Israel and the murder of Jews. Even without Hamas, the authority has its own problematic history of human rights abuses towards Christians and its law prohibiting land sales to Jews. Palestinian media and textbooks still raise irrendentist demands and call for the recovery of Jaffa and Haifa. Under such conditions, it would be a terrible mistake to grant the Palestinians automatic support at the U.N. or political recognition for their state in September.