Europe, Palestine, and Transatlantic Relations

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On May 28, Ireland, Norway, and Spain coordinated their recognition of Palestine in the hope of accelerating a pathway toward a ceasefire in the Gaza War and encouraging other states to join them in normalizing Palestinian statehood. A month later, the ceasefire is as far away as ever. On the contrary, there is growing fear of an expansion of the war into Lebanon. Nor did the threesome’s seal of approval to Palestine trigger a rush of imitation across Europe.

It is true that Slovenia followed suit, as did Armenia (not an EU member) somewhat later. Yet neither Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, nor any other major European country has jumped onto the bandwagon. The Irish, Norwegian, and Spanish rush has also put them at odds with American policy, which prefers negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority rather than peremptory recognition, which will make negotiations more difficult. It is worth asking why the three countries took this counterproductive diplomatic step. What are its implications for inner-European politics and the transatlantic alliance?

Of course, each country’s decision was made against local backgrounds. Armenia’s choice to recognize Palestine surely responds to Israel’s cooperation with Azerbaijan as part of its anti-Iran strategy. Yet, what about the trio of May 28? A common denominator is hard to find. Two, Norway and Spain, are constitutional monarchies, but Ireland is an emphatic republic. Spain and Ireland belong to the group of European countries that were once deeply Catholic but have tumbled into hegemonic secularism—still no common bond across all three.

What the three do share, however, are complex governing coalitions that tilt toward the Left: In Norway, the Labor Party rules as a minority government tolerated by the Socialist Left Party. Pedro Sanchez, the prime minister of Spain, is also the president of the Socialist International. The Irish coalition includes the Green Party. The same holds in Slovenia, where the Foreign Minister is a Social Democrat. The pattern is clear enough: left-leaning coalition governments engage in symbolic politics about the Middle East, where their impact is inconsequential. They have, however, succeeded in becoming outliers in Europe and headaches for American diplomacy.

It is worth noting that these three were not the first Europeans to recognize Palestine. In the wake of the Palestinian Liberation Organization issuing a declaration of independence in 1988, a wave of international recognition ensued, including many of the Soviet bloc states. That was a very different political context, but the states of the “new Europe,” such as Poland, Hungary, and Romania, have inherited Palestinian recognition from their Communist past. In 2014, Sweden’s left-wing government recognized Palestine, but the current conservative government in Stockholm has expressed strong support for Israel. So, in the post-Cold War era, and leaving aside the Swedish exception, the recent triple recognition represents something new. Do the three countries have anything else in common beyond their garden-variety left-wing coalitions?

All three are located in the western European periphery. Ireland is, of course, far from Europe’s endangered eastern front, just as Spain, in geostrategic terms, is nearly as far away as one can get from the shadow of a Russian invasion. Norway is peripheral in a different way, as part of the European north, where its vulnerability lies in the Arctic.

These locations on the European circumference may account for one shared criterion that is neatly quantifiable: very low defense spending. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s (NATO) target set in the so-called “Wales Pledge” involves dedicating 2 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP) to defense by 2024. None of these countries is even close: In 2023, Norway was at 1.67 percent, Spain at 1.26 percent, and Ireland—not a NATO member, so therefore formally not similarly obligated—managed to invest a minuscule 0.225 percent of its GDP for defense in 2022. Slovenia fits the same pattern at 1.35 percent. In contrast, Poland, with its difficult past with Russia, spent 3.9 percent of GDP, the United States spent 3.49 percent, and the United Kingdom 2.07 percent. It is fair to say that none of the countries that leaped to recognize Palestine pay much attention to their own security needs; no wonder they don’t care about Israel.

But there may be more to the story than dovish left-wing governments. Across Europe, political parties engage in vote counting as part of electoral democracy in a context where the Muslim population is always much larger than the Jewish population. Translating those numbers into policy can be tricky. While many Muslim voters presumably care about Gaza, many care more about other issues, such as the tyrannical regimes in Syria or Iran, not to mention domestic issues in Europe. 

Still, some parties, like Labour under Jeremy Corbyn or La France Insoumise now, try to fish in antisemitic waters, operating on the assumption that antisemitic views are more prominent among Muslim voters than in the general population. Perhaps it is, therefore, not just leftism but left antisemitism that underpins the three recognitions granted to Palestine. Do these countries have an antisemitism problem?

The Anti-Defamation League conducts surveys to score the rate of antisemitism on a country-by-country basis based on how many respondents agree with more than half of a set of statements expressing animosity toward Jews. According to the most recent surveys, the European average is 24 percent; Norway is far below that at 15 percent, and Ireland is low as well at 20 percent, while Spain at 26 percent stands out as more antisemitic than the European norm. Yet, the three countries share one peculiar feature that deserves closer attention: each is decidedly more antisemitic than neighboring countries that one might assume shared similar cultural attributes. Spain surpasses nearby Portugal, which only reaches 21 percent; Ireland’s 20 percent is far above the United Kingdom’s 10 percent; and Norway similarly stands out as the most antisemitic among the Scandinavians, where Denmark scores 10 percent and Sweden an even lower 4 percent. (Finland, by the way, matches Norway.) In other words, each of the three nations that chose to recognize Palestine has a troublesome cultural profile toward Jews when compared to similar countries. Their high antisemitism scores relative to their neighbors could have facilitated the decision to undercut the Jewish state in the diplomatic arena.

These maverick recognitions of Palestine contribute to preexisting inner-European political divides, which is particularly unfortunate at a time when Russia and China are trying to divide the West. Reaching a unified European foreign policy just became a lot harder. Meanwhile, the countries’ underinvestment in defense will put a strain on relations with the United States, regardless of the outcome of the November elections. A Europe of free-riders that refuses to invest in security and also engages in pointless showmanship on the Palestine question in a way that flouts U.S. policy will not be viewed as a credible partner in Washington.

Russell A. Berman is a Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution and previously served as Senior Advisor on the Policy Planning Staff of the U.S. State Department.

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