Recognizing Palestine: Estonia’s Iceland Moment

By Oliver Loode

Estonia will mark the 20th anniversary of the restoration of its independence in August of this year. It will be a major milestone in a remarkable year – one that brought the European Capital of Culture to Tallinn and the euro to Estonia. It will also be an occasion for numerous speeches and newspaper articles on how our independence was won back, whether this is “the Estonia that we wanted,” and what it means for Estonia to be an independent country in a globalized world.

To a large extent, the anniversary will be a rather Esto-centric, self-congratulatory affair. I, however, offer a proposal to use it for something even more meaningful – as an opportunity to show ourselves and the world that Estonia is as committed to the idea of freedom as it was in 1991 – by recognizing the independence of Palestine.

There are at least four compelling reasons why Estonia should formally recognize Palestine’s independence, not just (passively) support a two-state solution as is current official policy.

Firstly, recognizing Palestine’s independence would be in line with what the majority of Estonians would consider the right thing to do, given our national character and values. Granted, the Middle Eastern conflict is not covered in the Estonian media with the same rigor as in many other parts of Europe. As a result, general awareness and interest in the topic is relatively low. However, my subjective experience has been that if solicited, most Estonians recognize and support peaceful pursuits of Palestinians to rid themselves of occupation and to establish their own state.

Secondly, this would be a show of solidarity with another small nation that has been occupied by a foreign power since 1967, roughly the same time period that Estonia had been occupied for by the Soviets in 1991. Conditions on the ground, however, defy comparison. Life in Soviet Estonia during the 1970s and 80s was a breeze compared to the West Bank, let alone Gaza. At least Estonians were allowed to use the same roads as Soviet settlers to get from point A to point B within our country – which cannot be said of the West Bank today. Estonia’s solidarity with Palestine is particularly fitting at a time when the Palestinian Authority has made significant progress in institution-building, a fact that even Israel appears to admit.

Thirdly, it would be an affirmation of Estonia’s own sovereignty. Over the past decades, it has not always been obvious that Estonia chooses its foreign policy course with the necessary autonomy expected from an independent state. Estonia’s decision to enter the war in Iraq is a case in point – there was clear pressure to join the “coalition of the willing” despite two-thirds of Estonia’s population being against it. The 20th anniversary of restoring independence would be the right time to prove to ourselves and the world that once in a while, Estonia is capable of making up its own mind on issues of global importance.

Last but not least, this year Palestine continues to actively seek broad international recognition of its independence based on pre-1967 borders. Indeed, given the stalemate in official negotiations, and the incapability of the US and the Quartet to secure any kind of peace agreement, this may be the only remaining option for the Palestinians. As of today, Palestine’s independence has been formally recognized by several Latin American countries (including Brazil, Argentina and Chile) as well as Russia. France, Spain and Ireland have upgraded official embassy status to the Palestinian delegations in their countries. According to Haaretz, Spain may become the first European state to formally recognize Palestine’s independence. The momentum in support of Palestine is clearly there, which will force Estonia to take a stand as well.

But are there good reasons for why Estonia should not support Palestine’s independence among the first nations in Europe?

The fear of upsetting Israel (and by proxy, the United States) should not be one of them. Recognizing Palestine’s independence should not be seen as a hostile act towards Israel. The Jewish state can and should be Estonia’s ally and friend in many walks of life – culture, science, business, etc. – just not in the occupation of Palestine, please.

Nor can Estonia stay on the sidelines by arguing that the Middle Eastern conflict is none of our business, something for other nations to sort out. Estonia is already investing its resources in the region, as demonstrated by opening an embassy in Israel in November 2009, followed by a state visit of President Ilves in June 2010. Estonia is even advising the Palestinian Authority on developing e-government capabilities.

Clearly, the region does matter to Estonia.

Finally, one could argue that recognizing Palestine’s independence would be of no consequence; Estonia is too small and insignificant to shape in any way the course of the Middle Eastern conflict. I am convinced, though, that Estonia’s recognition of Palestine’s independence would not remain unnoticed among our neighbors and in the world at large. If Estonia were to take a clear stand on this issue, it might very well force more countries to prioritize the issue, take a stand, and thus help increase international pressure on Israel to eventually stop the occupation.

Fewer than 20 years ago, on August 22, 1991, Iceland became the first foreign state to recognize Estonia’s independence. Needless to say, this was an act of immense symbolic importance for Estonia. Today, there is an Iceland Square in central Tallinn with just one building carrying its address – Estonia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The time is approaching for this very institution to support the pursuit of Palestinian people for freedom in the same spirit Iceland did for us 20 years ago.

This is Estonia’s Iceland Moment – a fundamentally right thing to do and an act of symbolic importance that would be noticed within Estonia and elsewhere in the world.
Oliver Loode is a member of MTÜ U-Pööre (NGO U-Turn), an Estonian activist group dedicated to the pursuit of free, humane and responsible societies. Oliver also moderates an Estonia-Palestine support group on Facebook. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. (This article was published in the Estonian National Broadcasting English-language portal ERR News.)

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