Recently elected Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Lofven announced his country would be joining the expanding list of more than 120 nations to recognise Palestine as a state. While seven members of the European Union (EU) have already made this move, Sweden is the first western European member to join 70 per cent of the world’s countries in acknowledging Palestinian statehood aspirations.
Sweden has the gravitas of a visible and active player on the world stage and is close to the heart of the EU’s administrative axis. Its historic role as a mediator in the conflict — Stockholm is both sympathetic towards the Palestinians and friendly with Israel — makes this an important move.
Naturally, Israeli officials are deeply opposed to the impending recognition. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman responded with his typical gruffness, saying the new prime minister was “in a hurry to make statements on Sweden’s position regarding recognition of a Palestinian state, apparently before he had time even to study the issue in depth”.
In fact, there was no “hurry”.
The long trajectory of Swedish policy shows this move is only natural. As early as the 1960s, under the then prime minister Olof Palme, Sweden adopted anti-colonial solidarity as a linchpin of its foreign policy.
This included backing the Palestinians at the United Nations. Sweden was one of the first western countries to recognise that the Palestinians’ fate should not simply depend on resolution of the broader Arab-Israeli conflict because they were a people with rights and valid national aspirations.
In the late 1970s, Sweden was calling loudly for Palestinian statehood and Israel’s withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, decades before the US even began to give it lip service.
In the subsequent decade, with the Social Democrats back at the helm, foreign minister Lennart Bondstrom told the General Assembly that Arab-Israeli peace required a return to “the spirit of the original partition plan” of 1947.
This sent shockwaves through the Israeli establishment, as it suggested the re-internationalisation of the solution. It also harkened back to the borders of United Nations resolution 181, which gave Palestine more territory than it would have in a settlement based on the 1967 borders.
The UN representative from Sweden, Anders Ferm, repeated this in a 1986 speech. Stockholm later supported the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s 1988 declaration of statehood for Palestine.
Social Democrat leader Sten Andersson brought Palestine Liberation Organisation chairman Yasser Arafat to Sweden in late 1988 and described him as a “head of state”.
Jacob Abadi’s 2001 paper on Swedish-Israeli relations recounted this, but he concluded that Sweden’s continuous commitment to neutrality and mediation often meant a balancing against its underlying pro-Palestinian tendencies. Social Democrats, like the new premier, tend to be the most sympathetic towards the Palestinian cause.
Lieberman’s response was not the only mysterious one.
His deputy director general for Europe, Aviv Shir-On suggested that this move would “not contribute to the relations between Israel and the Palestinians, but in fact worsen them”. How could relations get any worse after “Operation Protective Edge”, in which Israel pounded Gaza, leaving more than 2,100 people dead and thousands wounded?
It is precisely this abysmal state of affairs that should ease Sweden into this decision. A quick scan of the political atmosphere reveals just how desperate the times are: The destruction of Gaza and humanitarian crisis, America’s abandonment of its failing role as a broker, the shifting of power to Hamas in the Palestinian political landscape, the growing boycott, divestment and sanctions movement that is pressuring Israel and the total lack of interest by Israeli leadership and political parties in pursuing meaningful peace.
The constellation of these many factors worries governments invested in the peace process.
The Palestinian National Authority (PNA), for its part, will claim this as another small victory in its strategy to enhance official recognition, which includes its efforts to boost its status in various international organisations. Its promotion to observer status at the UN two years ago was one such step that could beget more memberships in more international bodies.
Of course, this upgraded status did little to protect Gaza. The scale of Israel’s destruction in Gaza surpassed what the world witnessed in the three weeks in 2008-09. Internationalisation, this suggests, is a very limited means to the end Palestinians seek.
The PNA’s elitist resistance strategy is based on appeals to world powers rather than popular solidarity and grassroots support. This unimaginative approach builds on global goodwill towards Palestinians that predates the PNA. It tries to leverage its “moderation” and draw on their de facto visibility to achieve the trappings of statehood. This strikes me as an under-utilisation of the Palestinians’ greatest resource: international support for the realisation of their rights.
Even if every country in the world but Israel calls it the state of Palestine, a negotiated settlement is a necessary step to the actualisation of independence. The best Palestine’s would-be rulers can hope for is that the tide of recognition gives them more weight at the negotiating table.
Such pressure requires something heavier than the certificates of statehood. It needs tangible and consequential force, such as the threat of sanctions. The PNA hopes to gain from these symbolic victories.
It seeks any boost against Hamas, whose standing among Palestinians improved after the Israeli campaign this past summer. Sweden and other powers may recognise the need to hand the PNA more gains to try to resurrect its legitimacy.
This recognition by well-intentioned states like Sweden has the feel of the latest subsidy to the patronage machine in Ramallah.
Internal intrigue aside, the most important question to be asked is whether Palestinian statehood is even a tenable project, particularly as other states in the region collapse and after their mighty neighbour Israel has long been prone to disrupting neighbouring states’ sovereign affairs. This requires much more creativity, adaptability and hard thinking than is being done among Palestinian officials.
Will Youmans is assistant professor of Media and Public Affairs at George Washington University. You can follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@wyoumans