UNITED NATIONS — En route to New York to visit the United Nations, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas stopped over in Dublin last weekend.
While greeting the Palestinian delegation, Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney told reporters that his government was committed to recognizing a Palestinian state as part of a Middle East peace process. But what if peace talks with Israel fail?
“We may have to forget the second part of that,” Coveney said.
The comment drew headlines in Irish news media and caught the attention of Middle East-watchers worldwide. Speaking at the United Nations on Thursday, Coveney emphasized that he was not promising to recognize a Palestinian state in the near future, but raising the possibility that it could happen if peace talks stalled.
“If there is no prospect of an agreed settlement on the horizon, well, then I will be forced — certainly by my own Parliament — to reconsider whether, as an act of solidarity, we should be thinking about or talking about recognizing the state of Palestine,” Coveney told The Washington Post.
“Who knows what the U.S. will propose?” he asked of the Trump administration’s long-awaited peace plan.
Ireland isn’t the only European country pondering the recognition of a Palestinian state. Last week, Spain’s foreign minister, Josep Borrell, told a conference of European Union leaders that if that supranational body did not recognize a Palestinian state, Spain would consider whether to recognize it unilaterally.
And this week, British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn told his party conference that if he was elected, his government would recognize a Palestinian state “immediately” — a high-profile affirmation of the left-wing party’s policy under his leadership.
Some countries have recently followed through: Colombia announced last month that it would recognize a Palestinian state.
There are 137 U.N. member nations that have given recognition to a Palestinian state. Much of Asia, Latin America and Africa recognize it — but the United States, along with fellow Israeli allies Canada and Australia, do not. Europe is split, with nine out of 28 E.U. member states recognizing a Palestinian state: In 2014, Sweden became the first E.U. member state to decide to do so (other E.U. nations, most of which are in Eastern Europe, recognized it before joining the organization).
Some liberal Israeli commentators wondered if they were witnessing a real shift. Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian-born Israeli analyst based in Tel Aviv, wrote on Twitter that Israelis needed to reflect upon their own role in what was happening. “We are also responsible,” he wrote, before referring to the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.
In New York, Coveney said that the expansion of these settlements was a problem and that Ireland regarded them illegal, “but also very inconsistent with a willingness to be serious about facilitating a peace process that can result in a two-state solution.”
The Irish diplomat said that many in his country felt strongly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in part as Ireland was going through its own peace process with Britain during the Oslo accords in the 1990s. He also noted that under the leadership of Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, Ireland is making a push for a “Global Ireland” foreign policy, opening new embassies abroad and campaigning for a seat on the U.N. Security Council.
Rory Miller, a professor at Georgetown University in Qatar who tracks Ireland’s relations with the Middle East, said there had long been significant cross-party support for recognizing a Palestinian state in the Irish Parliament, but prior governments had always sought to keep their policy in line with the dominant E.U. position.
“In the current circumstances of deadlock in peace and growing frustration with the Israeli government and with the precedent set by other Parliaments and governments in Europe, that may be changing,” Miller wrote in an email.
It was possible that the E.U. might move as a body on the recognition of a Palestinian state, Coveney said, if it was deemed helpful. He admitted, however, that E.U.-wide consensus was unlikely. “Many of the E.U. member states that currently recognize Palestine would probably be member states that would have a more pro-Israeli perspective now on some of these issues,” he said.
The Trump administration has several Middle East policies that the Irish government disagreed with, Coveney said, including the decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, cuts in aid to the U.N. body that provides aid for Palestinian refugees, and the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization offices in Washington.
“I just don’t get the logic of that when you’re trying to actually work with moderate Palestinian leadership who are clearly committed to peace,” Coveney said. “It’s a strange tactic, put it that way.”
Ireland has traditionally been a strong U.S. ally, but Coveney and the center-right government of Varadkar have been at odds with the Trump administration over a variety of foreign policy issues. The president was scheduled to visit Dublin in November, but the trip was canceled amid reports of planned protests.
During his own visit to the United Nations this week, Trump said he supported a two-state solution. The president also said that his administration’s delayed peace plan rollout would happen within four months. Coveney said that although he’s heard rumors about what was in the U.S. plan, he did not know what it would include.
“They’ve been very careful not to share this,” he said. “We want the U.S. peace plan to work, but we want it to be fair to both sides. If it’s not, it won’t work.”
Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East negotiator now with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, said it was unlikely that European moves to recognize a Palestinian state would have a practical impact on the peace process unless there was a “tsunami” of traction.
Miller said that the Trump administration’s position may in fact be emboldened by such moves. “They’ve effectively been telling Abbas: ‘The game’s over. You lost,’" he said.
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