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Does international recognition for a Palestinian state really mean anything?

January 25, 2014 at 3:01 pm

Last week, Brazil gave official recognition to a Palestinian state within the pre-Six Day War 1967 borders, following a written request from the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas. In Brazil the decision was greeted by a media frenzy. Some commentators said Brazil was “doing what needs to be done” and “contributing to dialogue and the peace process”, all from an objective stand-point in line with President Lula de Silva’s foreign policy; Brazil also recognises the Jewish State of Israel. Others viewed the recognition as “diplomatic pyrotechnics” with Brazil acting out of sync with its peers.

When, a few days later, Argentina also recognised Palestine “as a free and independent state within the borders defined in 1967” followed by a 2011 promise of recognition from Uruguay and a statement from the EU that appeared to stop just short of the same, the international community paid attention. However, given the position of the US as both the key broker in peace negotiations and the holder of a veto within the UN Security Council, without American support do these statements of recognition really mean anything?

Political context

Ostensibly, the fact that South American countries have recognised a Palestinian state reflects the growing international consternation at the impasse in the peace talks following Israel’s refusal to extend its partial freeze on illegal settlement construction on occupied Palestinian Territory; this, despite the best efforts of the Obama administration. Combined with Israeli actions such as the brutal war on Gaza two years ago and its attack on the “Freedom Flotilla” in May, as well as a serious deterioration in the situation on the ground, many observers assert that international support for the creation of a Palestinian state has never been stronger. Indeed, in early December, twenty-six former EU leaders signed a letter urging a 2011 deadline for progress in talks, after which the international community should intervene and put forward “a concrete and comprehensive proposal for the resolution of this conflict” to include sanctions for breaches of international law.  

The letter, which was signed inter alia by former EU Commissioner Chris Patten and Ireland’s ex-President Mary Robinson, is in line with the initiative promoted by French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner and his Spanish counterpart Miguel Moratinos, according to which the EU would recognise a Palestinian state within the next 18 months. The initiative is meant to bolster Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad’s state-building efforts and plans to establish a state within two years. It is hoped that recognition of the Palestinian entity as a sovereign state by the European bloc will ease its acceptance into the international family of nations.

Representatives of the PLO and the PA have often asserted a right to declare statehood. Moreover, this is not the first or even the second attempt to rally international backing for the unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state. A state was declared in Gaza in 1947 and, in 1988, Yasser Arafat made the famed Algiers declaration at a meeting of the Palestinian National Council in which he declared statehood based on the 1947 UN Partition Plan or Resolution 181. A month later, the UN General Assembly adopted a related resolution citing the Algiers declaration and asserting that Palestinians had a right to declare a state based on 181. In a vote, 89 countries recognised a Palestinian state.

International tokenism

In his letter to President Abbas, the Brazilian Prime Minister said, “The recognition of its [Palestine’s] borders is part of Brazil’s conviction that a negotiating process leading to two states living in peace and security is the best path to peace in the Middle East.” Similarly, the statement released by the EU following a meeting in Brussels earlier this month breaks no new ground and puts no real pressure on Israel, asserting, as it does, support for “a negotiated solution” between the two sides “within the 12 months set by the Quartet” and the recognition of a state at an “appropriate” time. The US has branded steps to recognise a state as premature, and insists that they do not contribute to the goals of a two-state solution; a State Department official also said, “Negotiations are the pathway for the parties to see the realisation of their aspirations; for the Israelis, security, for the Palestinians, an independent, viable, and sovereign state of their own.”

Thus, the underlying message from the international community maintains the “obligation to resolve outstanding issues by negotiation” and its commitment to continue to support a negotiating process which is actually doomed to failure due to the severe imbalance of power between the two sides. However, this is at odds with the recognition of a unilaterally declared Palestinian state which should effectively bring the peace process to a close. It would seem that the choice now is between negotiations, with their inbuilt inequalities, or imposing a solution, ending the occupation and recognising a state. Both routes, it seems, are not possible.

Moreover, the EU upgrades ties with Israel continually (the Zionist state has been described as a member of the EU in all but name) while propping up an unconstitutional government in Ramallah in the name of state-building endeavours; the latter entrenches Palestinian dependence on Israel rather than bringing its immoral occupation to a long overdue end. A case in point is the PA’s security co-ordination with Israel which has turned Palestinian security forces into an extension of Israel’s security apparatus, while exacerbating the political schism between Fatah and Hamas.

In addition, there is a clear division in Palestine in terms of the public vision of sovereignty, split along Islamist and secular-national lines. It is difficult to see how an independent, stable and sovereign state can emerge without first achieving Palestinian national reconciliation and the formation of a unity government.

Recognition of a Palestinian state is, therefore, meaningless, as it neither brings the occupation to an end nor creates a state in any definitive or substantive way. Indeed, it detracts from more pressing issues of international concern that should be centre-stage. As highlighted by the US, what Palestinians need most is independence. This means having sovereignty over a viable and contiguous territory, including its borders, air space and security; to get to that stage there has to be a complete halt to settlement construction and colonisation activities by Israel on the occupied West Bank and Jerusalem. Without an end to the occupation and the achievement of national unity, Palestinians cannot have what they need to satisfy traditional criteria for statehood. Much more than mere token recognition is required from the international community, particularly the EU, whose duty it is to ensure that Israel conforms to international law.

The road ahead

Brazil’s recognition of a Palestinian state is an unequivocal statement that the occupation should come to an end if a two-state solution is to be viable. Significantly, Brazil’s bid for a more active role in the peace process also underscores the growing belief that the US has become redundant as a broker for peace given its domestic considerations and ties to Israel. Ex-US President Jimmy Carter told a Brazilian newspaper this week, “We cannot count on the United States alone to bring peace, since it agrees with almost everything Israel does.” This was exemplified by America’s recent and humiliating inability to convince a client state to cease its illegal activity for a mere three months, despite offering a “bribe” of $3 billion and a promise to veto all UN Security Council resolutions that may affect Israel adversely.  

Israel’s actions underscore the fact that it cannot be pressured politically by the US, and the refusal of the international community to take a decisive stance perpetuates the status quo. As Israel’s main trading partner, the EU is in a position to put significant pressure on the Zionist state to make progress in negotiations by, for example, gradually downgrading economic and political co-operation if no progress is made. Indeed, in the letter signed by the former EU leaders, calls were made to reiterate the EU position concerning the 1967 territory; refuse to upgrade ties without a settlement freeze; end the import of settlement products; and send a high profile delegation to East Jerusalem to draw attention to and address the critical situation there.


In 1988, the Algiers declaration received enormous attention, yet 22 years on, it has had no impact whatsoever on the political reality for Palestinians. The most significant outcome of the declaration was that it helped advance negotiations with the US. Similarly, the most likely outcome of the PA’s lobbying efforts is that it will help to end the deadlock by providing possibilities for further negotiation and additional compromises with Israel.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.