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Is Sweden paving the way for wider recognition of Palestine?

Yesterday, Sweden became the biggest western European country to formally recognise a Palestinian state. The new Prime Minister Stefan Lofven ignored strong criticism from Israel to follow through on a promise made at his inauguration last month.

In response, Israel immediately withdrew its ambassador from Stockholm "for consultation". The country's ultra-nationalist Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman described the move as a "miserable decision that strengthens the extremist elements and Palestinian rejectionism". Mocking the country's famous export, he added: "The Swedish government must understand that relations in the Middle East are more complex than one of Ikea's flat-pack pieces of furniture, and would do well to act with greater sensitivity and responsibility."

However, members of Stockholm's left-leaning Social Democrat-led government were firm. In his inauguration speech, Lofwen had said that a two-state solution was the only way to resolve the conflict. This week, Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom told reporters that Palestine met the requirements for statehood: "There is a territory, a people, and government."

She said that she was not worried about the recalling of Israel's ambassador, saying she was confident that both Sweden and Israel wanted to maintain good bilateral relations, adding that Sweden was the 135th country in the world to recognise a Palestinian state.

But it is the first EU member to do so. While countries like Slovakia, Poland and Hungary recognise Palestine, they were not members of the EU when they took that decision. They and other eastern European countries recognised Palestine as a state during the Cold War. Sweden is also only the third western European country to do so; the other two are Malta and Cyprus, which do not have the same international clout.

Sweden's decision reflects growing international impatience with Israel, which has occupied the West Bank and East Jerusalem for nearly half a century, and maintains a blockade of the Gaza Strip. This month, Britain's parliament passed a non-binding resolution to give diplomatic recognition to a Palestinian state, although David Cameron's government opposes official recognition.

These issues are currently at the forefront, with tension between Arabs and Jews running high because of Israel's plans to build 1,060 further housing units in settlements in East Jerusalem. The last round of peace talks, brokered by the US, fell apart earlier this year, with American officials hinting to the media that the Israeli government's intransigence was at least partly to blame.

It is the idea that Stockholm's decision to recognise Palestinian statehood is indicative of a wider shift in European opinion that is particularly worrying to Israel. The government fears that Sweden's move could lead other influential European countries to follow suit. Sweden has an influential voice in EU foreign policy and is seen as an honest broker in international affairs. Given its reputation and influence, it is possible that Sweden's decision could influence other member states in the EU. Israel has repeated its long-standing claim that this would negatively affect future negotiations over a Palestinian state and its borders.

Of course, the Palestinian position is that Israel is not serious about talks anyway. Senior Palestinian official Hanan Ashrawi welcomed Sweden's move, telling the AP news agency: "It is our hope that other EU member states and countries worldwide will follow Sweden's lead and recognise Palestine before chances for a two-state solution are destroyed indefinitely."

With peace talks on hold and violence ongoing, the Palestinian Authority has been quietly pursuing a diplomatic offensive, gaining non-member observer status at the UN and gradually ratcheting up international recognition. While Israel warns that a unilateral bid for statehood will be ultimately pointless because the borders are not clearly defined and cannot be defined without negotiation, it remains anxious about growing support for Palestine.

Palestine hopes, and Israel fears, that other countries in the EU will move to recognise it – but is it likely that this will happen? Some western European countries – Germany, Denmark and Finland – have said that they are not planning to do so. But this is not universal; a spokesman for the French foreign ministry said this month that France "will have to recognise Palestine" although he was not specific about when.

The move by Sweden – described by a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas as "brave and historic" – is not a game-changer. It is, however, a step in the right direction for those who want to see a peaceful and negotiated end to this intractable conflict.

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

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