Last week’s news cycle in the United States was dominated by Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh’s controversial confirmation hearings, giving scant attention to anything not directly related to the future of the judiciary. Meanwhile, in Israel, fears of another seemingly inevitable flare up of violence in Gaza monopolized the headlines. As a result, many are likely to have missed Spanish Foreign Minister Josep Borrell’s announcement of his country’s pending plans to unilaterally recognize a Palestinian state should Israeli-Palestinian relations continue to deteriorate, irrespective of the European Union’s current policy against doing so. Spain is not alone in mulling such a policy: a recent meeting between French President Emmanuel Macron and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas led the latter to make similar statements about France’s developing position on the issue. Between the two, however, Spain has always had a more fraught relationship with Israel, routinely being viewed along with a number of other Western European states as markedly pro-Palestinian, and thus less likely to heed protestations against taking such steps.
In response to Borrell’s statement, Angel Mas, the head of Spanish pro-Israel lobbying group ACOM, warned that unilateral recognition by Spain might then lead to a tit-for-tat response from Israel, with the latter itself recognizing the independence of the restive Catalonia region. Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon responded tersely: “I do not comment on speculations.” ACOM primarily focuses on challenging BDS initiatives in Spain and has successfully forced the hand of a number of boycott-supporting municipalities in the country to change course, but is not particularly well known outside the realm of Israel advocacy. This might explain, in part, why little attention was given to Mas’s statement. Yet its premise, even shorn of any real significance or action, reveals problematic assumptions on the part of members of the Israeli government and many of its supporters regarding their relationship with the territory under Israeli control.
Despite the controversy that has erupted over last year’s independence referendum, Catalonia is still, much to the chagrin of Catalan nationalists, uniformly recognized as a constituent part of the Spanish state. Many countries may debate how to best handle regions with aspirations for independence, but secession is, generally speaking, frowned down upon for the precedent it may invite, deferring instead to a central government’s authority on such matters. There are naturally outliers to this rule; Russia and a number of its allies have recognized small statelets in the former Soviet Union as a means of pushing back on what it perceives to be Western encroachment in its sphere of influence, often using these recognitions as a form of leverage against countries hoping to integrate more fully into the West.
Many on the Israeli right have certainly internalized this sanctity of state borders — provided said borders accommodate all the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. In the eyes of Greater Israel proponents, the West Bank is in fact no different than Catalonia, or the Basque Country and Corsica, for that matter; regions that, while composed of a population starkly different in its identity than the rest of the state, remain an essential component of the homeland that cannot be relinquished. By this standard, the pullout from the Gaza Strip over a decade ago began a dangerous process of territorial disintegration that in turn requires a doubling down against any and all inclinations regarding the ceding of land that remains in Israel’s grasp. To the rest of the world the reality is obviously markedly different. The Palestinian territories are not upstart regions vying for independence but territories populated by a people who have lived under military occupation for over half a century. Sentimental attachment to territory driven by nationalism, religion, or concerns regarding security notwithstanding, not a single state actor will recognize Israeli sovereignty over these areas short of a peace accord.
Of course, there is certainly nothing wrong with acknowledging the difficulty in ceding control over parts of the West Bank and East Jerusalem that carry significant national and religious importance for the Jewish people, or pointing out the security risks involved in such action — indeed, various center left politicians like Tzipi Livni, Ehud Barak, and Ehud Olmert have done so in the past and continue to point out the emotional toll that a final peace agreement will likely inflict on Israelis. Yet there is a wide gulf between discussing the various challenges posed by giving up territory and the attitude displayed by many coalition members; the former is a profoundly natural and human instinct, while the latter smacks of arrogance and a sense of entitlement. Worse still it perpetuates a false reality that flies in the face of international consensus, treating unwillingness to recognize Israeli sovereignty as a technicality that can be changed with just the right amount of coaxing.
If Spain does in fact go through with its decision of unilateral recognition — and there is hardly a guarantee it will follow through on this matter — its relations with Israel, at least in the short term, are likely to suffer. But it is highly improbable, if not impossible, that decision would be met with a vindictive reaction on the part of the Israeli government to break with international norms regarding the status of Catalonia, in turn creating a dangerous global precedent. The idea of even entertaining such action stems from a highly troubling understanding of territorial integrity and its conflation with a far more dubious “right by conquest;” those who think otherwise would do well to internalize this fact lest they force the country into an embarrassing international scandal in which the sovereign territory of one state is used as a bargaining chip for the unrecognized spoils of another.