By Hugh Lovatt, European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR), 14 February 2024

Recognising the state of Palestine is an important step towards Palestinian self-determination. But to be impactful, it needs to be accompanied by concrete measures to challenge negative dynamics on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides


With Israelis and Palestinians engulfed in some of the deadliest violence since Israel’s establishment in 1948, securing Palestinian self-determination remains the best and only guarantee for lasting peace and security for both sides. The starting point for this should be the recognition of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders. But recognition alone will not be enough to reinvigorate a meaningful Israeli-Palestinian political track in support of Palestinian sovereignty. It will need to be accompanied by measures to challenge Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territory and encourage the emergence of a credible Palestinian leadership that can galvanise public support for negotiations to end the long-running conflict with Israel.

Palestine has so far been recognised by 139 states, including nine EU members (the most recent being Sweden in 2014). Countries such as France, Germany, Italy, Norway, and the United Kingdom have so far refrained from following suit, arguing that such a move would undermine the Oslo process. Conditioning the Palestinian right to self-determination on a fatally flawed political process has always been the wrong approach – but is even more so today in the absence of any realistic prospect for successful negotiations.

The UK and some EU member states have now indicated support for recognising a Palestinian state in advance of a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. The United States too is reportedly exploring this option as part of a regional grand bargain to secure Saudi Arabia’s acceptance of a historical normalisation deal with Israel before the US presidential election this November.

Riyadh has made clear to Washington that “there will be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognised on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital” and Israel ends the war in Gaza. Other key Arab states such as Egypt have conditioned their support for post-conflict reconstruction in Gaza on an international push for Palestinian statehood.

While this is an important, albeit belated, policy shift, the recognition of a Palestinian state alone would be mostly symbolic and do little to bring about a two-state solution based on international parameters. Without an explicit territorial clause, any recognition of Palestinian statehood would lose its legal and political weight. Worse still, a lack of defined borders could revive Donald Trump’s vision of a Palestinian ‘state-minus’ made up of disconnected Bantustan-like states in the West Bank and Gaza. Importantly, recognising the 1967 borders would not prevent Israel and Palestine from agreeing future border modifications, including land swaps.

Challenging Greater Israel

For recognition to be a meaningful step towards long-term security, it needs to be accompanied by an end to Israel’s annexation of Palestinian territory. Western states’ first aim should therefore be to shift Israeli government policy and public opinion towards ending the occupation based on a two-state solution. They should make it clear to Israel that they will not accept any solution that falls short of a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders.

Successive Israeli governments have exploited the diplomatic vacuum to advance Israel’s illegal annexation of Palestinian territory, which is steadily enabling the settler movement’s dream of a Greater Israel that stretches from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. The EU has described Israel’s settlement policy as entrenching a “one-state reality of unequal rights, perpetual occupation and conflict”. Palestinians and human rights organisations have increasingly referred to this as apartheid. This trajectory threatens not just Palestinian national aspirations, but also Israel’s future as a democratic and Jewish-majority state (given the larger Palestinian population).

To be taken seriously, European countries will need to take concrete actions to challenge Israel’s illegal settlement activities in the occupied Palestinian territories. They should build on the sanctions recently imposed by the US, UK, and France against violent Israeli settlers. European governments should also fully support ongoing investigations by the International Criminal Court and International Court of Justice, and expand differentiation measures against the settlements, including banning all settlement products and financial services. Such measures would clearly signal Europe’s refusal to accept Israeli efforts to create facts on the ground that undermine Palestinian national aspirations.

Israel’s hard-right government, which strongly opposes a two-state solution, will of course reject such a diplomatic initiative as caving to Hamas. But it is precisely because of surging Israeli-Palestinian violence that a high-profile and concrete initiative is needed to demonstrate to Palestinians that there is a viable political path open. Europeans should be equally clear that recognition of Palestine is not an anti-Israel move. On the contrary, it would reaffirm and uphold the legitimacy of the State of Israel within its internationally recognised 1967 borders.
Revitalising the Palestinian political system

Western states will also need to re-energise and re-legitimise the Palestinian political system for recognition to lead to true self-determination. The fragile Palestinian Authority (PA) is already teetering on the brink of financial collapse due to Israeli sanctions, and losing ground to hardliners, such as Hamas, which have capitalised on growing Palestinian public support for armed resistance.

Advancing Palestinian national aspirations in a concrete fashion would bolster the standing of the PA – which remains committed to diplomacy and non-violence – and siphon away support for Hamas by offering Palestinians a realistic alternative to armed resistance. Without a strong political track in support of Palestinian rights, the PA will not have the popular legitimacy needed to re-establish governance and security in a post-conflict Gaza.

But the PA’s domestic predicament stems not just from the lack of a political horizon for ending the conflict. It is also a product of its own democratic deficit. European governments should use recognition as an opportunity to press President Mahmoud Abbas to implement a package of reciprocal steps to restore the country’s democratic fabric. These will have to go well beyond largely cosmetic gestures, such as appointing a new prime minister, and instead include far-reaching structural changes such as restoring judicial independence; tackling human rights abuses and loosening restrictions on political mobilisation; advancing national reunification; and holding long overdue elections when conditions allow. Such changes would increase and broaden popular support for, and participation in, Palestinian institutions.

Supporting Palestinian domestic renewal will require a willingness from European countries to acknowledge hard realities. The hardest of these relates to Hamas which will remain a core part of the Palestinian national movement despite Israeli efforts to eradicate it. European capitals will have to accept that successfully returning the PA to Gaza, re-legitimising Palestinian institutions, and ultimately reaching a lasting peace agreement with Israel will all require a degree of buy-in from Hamas to prevent it playing a spoiler role.

Reinforcing the political and legal standing of the Palestinian people and strengthening international accountability mechanisms vis-à-vis Israel is also crucial to challenging Israel’s consolidation of apartheid in the occupied territories. If decades of unrestrained Israeli settlement expansion do ultimately make a two-state solution unfeasible, such steps would nonetheless support future efforts to forge a sustainable one-state outcome predicated on Israeli-Palestinian equality.

Europe’s card

Recognition of a Palestinian state, coupled with these important steps on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, could help mobilise international diplomacy behind the EU’s longstanding vision of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, living side by side in peace with Israel, with a just solution for Palestinian refugees. This would build on the landmark 1980 Venice Declaration of the European Community (the EU’s precursor), which first acknowledged the right of Palestinians to self-determination, and the EU’s subsequent 1999 Berlin declaration that confirmed the EU’s “readiness to consider the recognition of a Palestinian State”.

As political and security conditions continue to rapidly deteriorate on the ground, Europeans should play the recognition card before the potential for a two-state solution vanishes entirely.


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