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The Spark of an Independent Policy in Europe: Slovenia's Recognition of Palestinian Statehood

The Republic of Slovenia is planning to recognize the State of Palestine as an independent state in late winter or early spring, and three other European countries are thinking of following suit – Luxembourg, Ireland, and Belgium. The international recognition has been the objective of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) since the Palestinian Declaration of Independence proclaimed the establishment of the State of Palestine on 15 November 1988 in Algiers. Today, 136 or slightly above seventy percent of the 193 member states of the United Nations and two non-member states have recognized the State of Palestine. Those who did not are mostly from the West, i.e. close allies of the United States.

Of the 28 EU member states, Sweden was the first European country to officially recognize Palestine, in October 2014. Eight other countries took the step before entering the EU: the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Malta, and Cyprus. In December 2014, in a symbolic move not binding on government policy, French lawmakers voted in favor of recognizing Palestine as a state, following similar moves in Britain and Spain, as European countries tried to restart the stalled Middle East peace process. Italy followed suit in 2015. At the same time, several Western European country's parliaments, such as Spain, Portugal, France and Ireland, have symbolically recognized Palestinian statehood in recent years. While Slovenia is now preparing recognition, in meanwhile France is working behind the scenes to upgrade the Palestinian Authority's status at the European Union.

The moves follow US President Donald Trump's December recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and plan to move the US Embassy to the city from Tel Aviv. Trump said his declaration reflected reality on the ground, and was not intended to prejudge any future arrangement between Israel and the Palestinians regarding the disputed city, though he later said it had taken Jerusalem off the table. Welcomed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and leaders across most of the Israeli political spectrum, the move caused an uproar throughout the Muslim world and was panned by the United Nations, the European Union, and many European countries.

In December 2017, Slovenian Parliament Speaker Milan Brglez told Palestinian Ambassador Salah Abdel-Shafi that Slovenia's recognition of a Palestinian state was "not in doubt, but just a question of timing." Slovenian Prime Minister Miro Cerar said at the time that although all three Slovenian coalition parties had voted in favor of recognition, his country should wait until a group of EU member states decided to act together. In mid-January, the Slovenian government decided to move ahead on plans to recognize the State of Palestine. Cerar said that a vote on recognition was expected to be held by the Slovenian parliament's foreign affairs committee on January 31, followed by a vote of the full parliament in February.

On 22 January, the Slovenian Foreign Minister Karl Erjavec said "the Slovenian government hopes Members of Parliament will vote to recognize the Palestinian state and become only the second country to do so as an EU member state." He further added that "all other EU member states backs such a Slovenian step that will happen if parliament green lights the proposal for recognizing the Palestinian state." The minister was speaking from Brussels, where Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas met European foreign ministers, who he urged to recognize Palestine. Erjavec and Abbas had a bilateral meeting. "By recognizing it, Slovenia would strengthen Palestine's negotiation in the Middle East peace process. We have an independent foreign policy, we do not need any other state to cover our back," Erjavec also said.

Barbara Sušnik, the Slovenian ambassador in Tel Aviv, told the Israeli press that the issue of recognizing Palestinian statehood has been pending in the country's parliament since 2014, and is only now coming to a vote. She confirmed that the foreign affairs committee will vote on the matter on January 31. If the committee votes in favor of recognizing Palestine, the issue will be brought to a vote in the full plenary of the Parliament. As opposed to many other Western democracies, it is Slovenia's legislative branch, not its executive, which has the last word on foreign policy matters such as recognizing states.

Sušnik said it was difficult to predict how the parliamentarians would vote, but hinted that there was a good chance they would seek to assert the Palestinians' right to self-determination. "The elected representatives of the people will decide the way they decide. It's their decision," she said. "For the people of Slovenia, the principle of self-determination of nations is very important, because that is how Slovenia became independent 26 years ago, when we exercised the right to self-determination. All nations have the right to self-determination."

She stressed that a possible recognition of Palestine should not be seen as a move hostile to Israel. "We established friendly relations with Israel more than 25 years ago, and we appreciate them a lot," she said. "We're committed to good relations with Israel. Our embassy in Tel Aviv was opened in the summer of 1994, right after diplomatic relations were established. Unfortunately, Israel never opened an embassy in Slovenia." According to the other reports, Israel's Foreign Ministry has been trying to recruit Slovenian lawmakers to oppose the move, although expectations are low that the process can be stopped.

On 26 January, Slovenia's President cast doubt on his country recognizing Palestine as a state in the near future. President Borut Pahor's office said in a statement that "he would only back the recognition of a Palestinian state in circumstances that would contribute to the solution of its bilateral issues with Israel, but not to the worsening of relations." But the statement added that for the moment, "those circumstances (contributing to a solution) are not in place." Israel has urged Slovenia against recognizing Palestine and their ambassador to Slovenia Eyal Sila warned Speaker of the Slovenian Parliament Milan Brglez and the chair of the Foreign Policy Committee Jozef Horvat against the move.

Finally, on 31 January, the Slovenian Parliament's foreign affairs committee has suspended a debate on whether to recognize Palestine. According to officials, the foreign affairs committee suspended its session pending an official government position. Foreign Minister Karl Erjavec said that the government will likely discuss the issue next week. The committee will then meet again on the government proposal before the final vote in the plenary, which is expected in March or April.

Marko Knežević

Marko Knežević is a historian and freelance journalist from Bar, Montenegro. He is a frequent traveller to the Middle East and East Asia.