There are two ways to look at the French threat to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state if the stalemate in the peace process persists.
We’ll get to the “it’s a serious challenge for Israel” folks lower down. But those who aren’t overly perturbed by the Paris ultimatum say: So what? Paris is free to convene an international conference to try to break the deadlock and get the two sides to make the concessions necessary for a peace deal. Since this outcome seems unlikely — or more accurately, utterly unrealistic — France can go ahead and recognize a “State of Palestine.” Such a move will be condemned in Jerusalem as unhelpful on the path to peace and celebrated in Ramallah as a great victory against the occupation. But declarations and recognitions change nothing on the ground.
A sovereign Palestinian state was not born in 1988, when Yasser Arafat proclaimed independence, or in 2012, when 139 states voted to grant “Palestine” nonmember observer state status at the United Nations, or in 2015, when the Palestinian flag was raised at UN headquarters in New York.
So French recognition of Palestinian statehood would be merely that: words on a piece of paper, and perhaps a solemn declaration by President Francois Hollande and another stately but ultimately meaningless photo op for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Indeed, if no other country gets there in the interim, France would become the 137th state to recognize Palestine. In other words, more than 70 percent of the world’s countries have already done so. (The latest state to join the club was Saint Lucia, a tiny island nation in the Eastern Caribbean, which made the move last September.)
France would not even be the first Western European state to recognize Palestine. Parliaments in Britain, Spain, Belgium, Greece and elsewhere have already called on their respective governments to recognize Palestine. Sweden did just that in 2014, and the world did not tilt off its axis.
In fact, not much has moved since, either in the peace process or in European-Palestinian relations — besides the fact that, a month after the recognition, the king of Sweden congratulated the people of the “State of Palestine” on their “National Day” in a letter, marking the first time a European monarch officially hailed the Palestinians’ unilateral declaration of independence in 1988.
Now some might argue that Stockholm is not Paris — France, after all, is a nuclear power holding a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. But so are Russia and China, which have both long recognized a Palestinian state.
Much more significant than a French recognition of Palestine would be a Security Council resolution calling for an Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. While that would still not immediately change anything on the ground, it would create a new legal framework for future negotiations, and probably not in Jerusalem’s favor.
But even if four permanent members of the council voted in favor, such a resolution could be vetoed by the United States. It is currently hard to assess whether the US administration would support or oppose a Palestinian statehood bid at the United Nations. That might depend on the resolution’s wording, on timing, and on a whole host of other factors, but it has always been the US position that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict needs to be resolved by the two sides, rather than unilaterally via the UN.
And this is where members of the “take this French ultimatum seriously” camp chime in. They argue that French recognition of a Palestinian state could make it easier for an American president to refuse to step in with a UN veto. The more respectable members of the international community recognize Palestine, and argue that they are doing so in an effort to reinvigorate the peace process, the harder it gets for Washington to continue to stall such efforts at the UN.
Furthermore, those concerned by Paris’s proposal posit that while one more state recognizing Palestine changes nothing on the ground, a heavyweight such as France doing so helps create a critical mass that Israel will at some point be unable to withstand.
A solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can only come as the result of bilateral negotiations, officials in Jerusalem repeat tirelessly whenever confronted with the specter of unilateral steps. But when France, the Security Council and almost the entire world recognizes Palestine, Israel could find it harder to to maintain that its approval is needed for Palestinian statehood. The family of nations will have made its near-unanimous decision.
Recognitions, declarations and resolutions do not have the power to create a truly independent State of Palestine. But they can move the diplomatic goalposts.
If Paris moves ahead as promised, seeking to convene an international conference this summer, aiming to prompt substantive peace talks, subsequently drawing near-inevitable bleak conclusions, and then recognizing Palestine, we could learn fairly soon whether this weekend marked the beginning of a significant diplomatic shift.
Israeli ministers lined up on Friday and Saturday to announce that Israel would not negotiate under the threat of an ultimatum, and also to argue that the French approach — promising the Palestinians recognition if talks made no progress — only ensured continued Palestinian obduracy. Still, one Foreign Ministry official was also quoted by Reuters as saying that Israel would “examine and respond” to an invitation to France’s planned conference.
As of Saturday night, Netanyahu was silent. Perhaps he too was weighing whether he could afford to brush off the French, or whether French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius’s late January snowball might mark the start of a diplomatic avalanche.