Several European Countries Just Recognized a Palestinian State. It’s Symbolic—but Has Huge Implications for Israel.

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The decision by Norway, Ireland, and Spain to recognize a Palestinian state is a symbolic gesture, but in the context of the war in Gaza, it delivers a huge blow to Israel and a modest boost to Hamas. Ironically, though, that this happened is entirely the Israeli government’s fault.

Israeli officials—not just Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners—have denounced the move as a “twisted decision” that will prompt “consequences” (without explaining what possible consequences will ensue). The Biden administration, as well as the leaders of France and Germany, has criticized the move as ill-timed.

Israel and its allies have long held that a Palestinian state, if one is formed at all, must be the result of negotiations between Israel and Palestinians, most likely the final result and reward of a peaceful settlement. As long as Israel at least paid lip service to the idea of a two-state solution, many countries patiently awaited the results of such negotiations—or, to describe the situation more accurately, they passively ignored that such negotiations weren’t happening.

Now, however, the truth can no longer be avoided, nor can the urgency for a cease-fire and at least some movement toward a grand peace. Netanyahu has publicly proclaimed, several times, that he will not accept a Palestinian state. Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, though a critic of the prime minister’s war policy on some grounds, was recently captured on tape saying the same thing.

Saudi Arabia’s rulers desperately want to “normalize” relations with Israel, which they see as a potent ally in their larger rivalry with Iran, but they demand that Israel at least pretend to support the idea of resuming negotiations toward a two-state solution. This is a very low bar, but Netanyahu refuses to clear even that. In part this is because he fears that if he did so, some of his coalition partners would resign, forcing new elections, which he would almost certainly lose. (If just five members of his coalition quit, his majority in parliament would vanish.) But as the Gallant tape indicates, top Israeli officials also oppose a two-state solution at the moment—as do the vast majority of Israelis, still shell-shocked by Hamas’ murderous invasion of Oct. 7.

In other words, it is no longer possible for anyone to act as if a two-state solution, or even a negotiation toward such a solution, is on the table. (Until recently, some have kept up the pretense, even though there have been no negotiations between Israel and Palestinians for a decade.) Yet most world leaders believe—or at least say they believe—that a two-state solution is the only way, ultimately, to end this eternal war. So, many of these nations are now declaring the fact of a Palestinian state on their own authority—if just to prod some movement on the issue.

Similarly, earlier this week, the International Criminal Court’s chief prosecutor, Karim Khan, applied for a warrant charging Netanyahu and Gallant, as well as several Hamas leaders, for war crimes and crimes against humanity. He later explained that he had done so in part because Israel’s government had not taken action on its own to stop its most egregious deeds. “As I also repeatedly underlined in my public statements,” Khan said, announcing his decision Monday, “those who do not comply with the law should not complain later when my office takes action. That day has come.”

If Netanyahu had merely expressed support for holding talks toward a two-state solution, and if he had detained even a few of his most atrocious soldiers and settlers, he could have avoided this escalation of international ignominy.

The prosecutor’s warrants must be approved by the ICC’s three-judge panel. It is not entirely clear what will happen if they are approved. If the normal rules are followed, Netanyahu and Gallant (as well as Yahya Sinwar and other Hamas leaders) will be arrested if they travel to any country that recognizes the authority of the ICC. However, Israel has never ratified the court as a legitimate body. (Neither, by the way, have the United States, Russia, China, India, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Turkey.) Is the leader of a country that never ratified the ICC subject to the court’s rulings? It’s not clear.

What the action by Ireland, Spain, and Norway means is not apparent either. Of the world’s 193 nations, 142 have already formally recognized a Palestinian state—most of them did so quite a while ago—yet their declarations had little impact on Middle Eastern geopolitics. It is not at all evident just what this Palestinian state is. What are its borders? Who will defend them? For a Palestinian state to be real, it would have to be proclaimed a state by the United Nations General Assembly—and that resolution would have to be approved by the U.N. Security Council, which would not happen because the United States would veto the resolution. (In fact, the General Assembly last month did pass a motion urging the admission of a Palestinian state, and the U.S. did veto it.)

So, no, this does not mean that the Palestinian Authority (much less Hamas) suddenly has new legal claim to territory, much less the right to buy arms or engage in trade or do many of the other things that a sovereign state does.

Still, Wednesday’s action marks the first time that recognition has come from European countries, and others will soon follow. Israel will experience further isolation in an area of the world that has, for the most part, refrained from dramatic acts of opprobrium against the Jewish state. And as more and more countries declare that a Palestinian state exists (even if it’s mainly in their leaders’ minds), Israel’s persistent denial—its refusal even to talk about talking about such an entity—will seem increasingly pathological.

It will appear, more and more, that Israel is the main obstruction to peace. The Palestinian Authority, which once endorsed a two-state solution from its headquarters in the West Bank, will look justified in swearing off negotiations with Israel. And Hamas, which has always been opposed to such discussions—its charter calls for eliminating Israel as a Jewish state, and its leaders have talked openly about killing all Jews—could increasingly be seen by Palestinians as a legitimate leader.

Netanyahu and his colleagues could have sidestepped this by saying just a little bit and doing even less. That they are refusing to do even that isn’t just a calamity. It’s an unforced mistake.