Iceland's Foreign Policy: Alone and Adrift

  • by:
    • Abraham H. Foxman
  • January 31, 2012

After Iceland's parliament voted to recognize the State of Palestine, Foreign Minister Ossur Skarphedinsson proudly announced, "Iceland is the first country in Western Europe to take this step."

"Misstep" might be more accurate.

Iceland did not set a bold example for Europe to follow when the Icelandic parliament passed the motion on November 29 in favor of a resolution to recognize Palestine "as an independent and sovereign state" based on the pre-1967 borders. Instead, it isolated itself. And the 40 percent of Iceland's parliamentarians who voted against recognition seemed to concur.

A report by the center-right minority on the Icelandic parliament's foreign affairs committee pretty much got it right.

Strongly criticizing the government's proposal to recognize Palestine, the minority accused the foreign ministry of having done no research. It assailed the reasoning behind the proposal as "significantly lacking" and unfair both to Israel and to history.

The report derisively noted that today's pro-Israel positions of Central and Eastern European states are certainly more relevant than the recognition of Palestine by their communist regimes in 1988, the latter being a central argument in the government's proposal.

The minority also felt compelled to remind the Icelandic government of a few key truths: That the conflict is fundamentally about "the mere existence of the State of Israel;" Hamas is a terrorist organization bent on Israel's destruction; the 1993 Oslo Accords specified no unilateral change in status of the territories; and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority refuse to recognize Israel as the Jewish state.

In a direct shot at Skarphedinsson, the report stated, "The Minister's assessment is at the same time in conflict with the opinion of almost all the countries that have worked hardest to promote peace in the region."

Not the Middle East Quartet, nor the European Union, nor even Iceland's non-E.U. Nordic neighbor Norway have recognized the State of Palestine, the report pointed out and it stated that "these countries have clear arguments."

What was not clear was the foreign ministry's reason for recognizing Palestine. Perhaps it was a publicity stunt to get some international notice. Unencumbered by membership in the E.U. or by any involvement in the peace process, Iceland's foreign ministry probably saw what it thought was an opportunity and took it.

It is true that important European states, including the United Kingdom and France, have dangled possible recognition as a carrot for the Palestinians and wielded it as a stick on the Israelis to push for serious peace negotiations.

While unwarranted and counterproductive, these threats are unlikely to be carried out unless the Europeans decide to ignore Palestinian obstructionism and accuse Israel of being the sole cause of a complete breakdown in the peace process.

While bilateral recognition by E.U. member-states does not require consensus at the E.U. level, uncoordinated diplomatic decisions on serious issues set back the European goal of integrating their foreign policies. And tactically, once the recognition card is played, the Europeans will have one less point of leverage for their positions.

President Obama's speech at the U.N. General Assembly made clear that the path to recognition is through negotiations. His speech and the Quartet statement issued immediately afterwards set the tone for the international community.

Recently, Thailand also moved to recognize Palestine. It is regrettable that countries like Iceland and Thailand, with no diplomatic involvement in the peace process, have chosen to strike out on their own. The E.U., as a member of the Quartet, seems to understand that it cannot act so irresponsibly.

The result of Iceland's mistaken decision is that its diplomacy now mirrors its geography: far removed from Europe and alone at sea.