Push for Palestinian statehood grows in Europe as France begins debate

France has become the latest country in Europe to consider recognizing the state of Palestine. With a non-binding vote getting under way Friday, its National Assembly is following the lead of four other European nations that have taken similar steps.

Remy de la Mauviniere/AP/file
Pro-Palestinian demonstrators marched in Paris on Aug. 9 to protest the Israeli operations in the Gaza strip. France's National Assembly is holding a non-binding vote on recognizing Palestinian statehood on Friday.

As France’s National Assembly began debating a non-binding vote on recognizing a state of Palestine Friday, lawmakers joined three other democratic chambers and one European leader who have done the same in less than six weeks.

It’s an extraordinary flurry of legislative activity across Europe, which was stunned by flashes of anti-Semitism at protests this summer over Israel’s actions in Gaza that led to nearly 2,200 lives lost, mostly Palestinian civilians. And while Israel and many Jewish organizations worry that the moves – which are mostly non-binding – are wrong-footed, they represent a growing frustration with Israel.

Sweden was the first this autumn to press the status quo, and has gone the furthest in Europe, officially recognizing Palestine as a state on Oct. 30, after its new center-left prime minister, Stefan Löofven, announced it would be one of his very first policy moves.

The rest of the votes thus far are symbolic, but they signal a growing momentum that has put Israel on the defensive. The debate in France comes at the request of leftist lawmakers from both the Socialist and Communist parties, and follows similar debates in the United Kingdom, Spain, and Ireland. The European Parliament is expected to follow France with its own vote in December.

“There has been a domino effect triggered by the Swedes,” says José Ignacio Torreblanca at the European Council on Foreign Relations in Madrid. And while he says no vote is a game-changer, the “battle is about international legitimacy."

While most Western nations don’t officially recognize Palestine, most of the rest of the world does. The Palestinian Authority has said some 135 countries now recognize it as a state (including some European countries from when they were part of the Soviet Union).

Europe is shifting its stance now in part because of pressure from Palestinian supporters. Much of the movement comes from Europe’s left, where Muslims are increasingly important constituents. Many leaders on the right, such as British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, are firmly aligned with Israel.

But there is a mounting dissatisfaction in Europe with what many see as Israeli intransigence, especially on settlement expansion. That’s why conservative British lawmaker Richard Ottaway, who is chairman of the House of Commons' foreign affairs committee, abstained as a “protest vote” during the UK’s vote in October.

“I was so angry at Israel’s behavior that I couldn’t bring myself to vote against it,” he says in a phone interview. “They are looking at people like me who have stood by them through thick and thin with absolute contempt. And I’m not going to take that lying down.”

In France, the heads of Jewish organizations have criticized the upcoming Dec. 2 vote as ill-timed. Michele Teboul, the president of the Marseille branch of the umbrella group CRIF, sent an open letter to French lawmakers outlining her concerns, including that, at a time when the words “death to Jews” were shouted and Jewish local businesses vandalized this summer, such a vote could make a two-state solution even more elusive.

But many Europeans are losing faith that a two-solution is even on Israel’s agenda – and it's shown in their politics toward Israel in recent years. European countries have been banning products and business in illegal settlements. During the United Nations General Assembly vote to grant Palestinian territories observer status in 2012, surprising “yes” votes included France, Italy, and Spain. The UK and even Israel’s most stalwart ally, Germany, abstained.

Moving towards state recognition could eventually offer a new tool, stepping beyond condemnations of actions that critics say have gone nowhere. “This creates a new instrument that could have practical consequences,” says Daniel Levy, the director of the Middle East and North Africa Program at the European Council on Foreign Relations in London.

The fact that most of the world recognizes Palestine yet the status quo remains shows the limitations of Europe's initiatives, especially as long as the United States has a veto in the UN Security Council. But Mr. Torreblanca says it’s telling that the US hasn’t mobilized against the moves in European parliaments. “In terms of division of labor between good cop and bad cop, maybe [the US] think it’s good for Europeans to be the bad cop for the moment,” he says.

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