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World

Berlin mulls upgrade of diplomatic relations with Palestine

A host of countries have recently recognized Palestine as an independent state. In an interview with Deutsche Welle, the head of the Palestinian delegation to Germany explains why this is a major development.

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Salah Abdel Shafi has been heading the Palestinian General Delegation to Germany since August 2010. Previously he served for four years as the Palestinian representative to Sweden.

Deutsche Welle: Recently a number of South American countries including Brazil, Chile and Argentina officially recognized Palestine as an independent state. Is this move connected to the failed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks which collapsed late last year or were you focused on getting recognized by Latin American countries before?

Salah Abdel Shafi: Definitely it has to do with the collapse of the direct negotiations between us and Israel. It's about a two-state solution. When Israel refuses to freeze settlement activities this definitely means that a two-state solution is at risk. That's why by recognizing a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967 we are legally trying to perpetuate the fact that these territories are the territories of a future Palestinian state and by this we contribute to saving the two-state solution.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Malki predicted that by September of this year the majority of the international community would recognize a sovereign Palestinian state. While this would certainly be an important symbol, would it change anything on the ground as far as Palestine's viability as an independent state is concerned?

No definitely not. We don't have the illusion that the recognition will change things on the ground. But nevertheless, the important aspect is the legal aspect. If the United Nations recognizes the state, it means legally the 1967 borders are the territory of a Palestinian state. So from a legal perspective this is a major development. But of course on the ground it doesn't mean anything. But we also shouldn't forget that our government with Prime Minister Fayad is making enormous progress in building state institutions. So we have two parallel processes: One, legal recognition and on the other hand we have on the ground the establishment of institutions and institutional infrastructure for the state.

In December, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on the EU to recognize a Palestinian state, but was only told that the EU would recognize Palestine when appropriate. Your foreign minister said last month that the EU would recognize a Palestinian state in September. Is that just wishful thinking or do you have any concrete assurances that the EU as a whole will in fact recognize a Palestinian state by September?

The assurance that we have is that the EU said when appropriate they will recognize a Palestinian state. However, we think that members of the EU will be recognizing a Palestinian state. Don't forget that just recently Cyprus as a member of the EU recognized Palestine as an independent state within the borders of 1967. We have assurances from Spain that at the latest by September they will also recognize a Palestinian state within the borders of 1967 and we hope that other countries would follow. But we don't have assurances from the EU as such that this will happen by September.

Germany is one of the most important members of the EU and due to its history has also a very special and close relationship with Israel. Do you really think Germany will recognize a Palestinian state anytime soon and thereby risk damaging its special ties with Israel?

First of all I think Germany will be moving within a unified European position. I don't think Germany will take any steps outside a unanimous decision by the EU. But I don't think even if Germany takes such a step within the EU that means that Germany will jeopardize its special relationship with Israel. On the contrary, I think recognizing a Palestinian state is ultimately exactly in the interest of Israel and if Germany does it I think Germany will do it out of concern also for the future of Israel and for a secure state of Israel.

Ireland, while not officially recognizing a Palestinian state, last week upgraded the status of the Palestinian delegation to that of a mission, meaning its head is now officially an ambassador. Do you think Germany should follow Ireland's example?

Actually it's not only Ireland, but also France, Portugal, Spain and Norway. They all upgraded the status of our representation in their respective countries. We are already talking to the German government about upgrading the status of our Palestinian general delegation.

I have to say that the response of the German government so far has been that they are looking into this positively which means that the German government is considering the upgrading of the diplomatic relationship with Palestine. And let me remind you that Germany was the first EU country to establish a joint German-Palestinian governmental steering committee that met for the first time last May. For us politically this means a de facto recognition by Germany of the Palestinian government as a government of a sovereign state.

Apart from the EU, the United States is of course the most important international power that hasn't recognized Palestine and could veto all efforts for a Palestinian state to become recognized by the UN. Do you see any chance that the US would recognize a Palestinian state in the near future?

President Obama in his speech in at the UN General Assembly last September said very clearly that he hopes by next September a new member of the United Nations will be the state of Palestine. We are taking President Obama by his word. We know that there is a very strong pro-Israel lobby in the United States, but at the end of the day, if more and more countries in the world recognize our state and they do it not only for the sake of Palestine, but also for the sake of Israel I think the US cannot single itself out against a huge majority in the world.

Interview: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge