A version of this story originally appeared on the newsportal DELFI, which is the most popular news aggregator for Lithuania and Estonia. Its writer, Ramunas Bogdanas (former assistant of Lithuanian independence hero Vytautas Landsbergis), contacted Jón Baldvin with an interview request in the aftermath of Iceland voting for—and Lithuania against—UNESCO recognising Palestine, as the former Minister for Foreign Affairs instigated the international community’s recognition of Lithuania as an independent state, despite both US and German opposition.
The below exchange was reportedly the source of much discourse in Lithuania, the crux of which was an open symposium held by the Lithuanian parliament’s foreign affairs committee.
In light of Alþingi’s recent vote to ratify Palestine as an independent and sovereign state, we are publishing a slight edit of the original story, along with an additional question from us (it’s at the very end in case you were wondering).
How did Iceland vote at the UN on admitting Palestine as a full member of UNESCO?
Iceland voted yes, since we support the Palestinians’ claim for statehood. We think this is a small step in the right direction. I fully agree with our Foreign Minister Össur Skarphéðinsson on this issue. I think that Israel’s intransigence and brutality vis-à-vis Palestinian civilians is one of the great tragedies of our times. The victims of European racial prejudice and brutality have now become the perpetrators of those vices themselves. It is not merely immoral, but stupid, since it goes against the long-term Israeli national interest. It actually endangers Israel’s future security.
The US has utterly failed as a mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has lost all credibility as such. The silent US acquiescence in the continuous expansion of illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied lands has disqualified the US as a mediator. Both the US and Israel have to be helped out of this mess. Before they call upon themselves the rightful wrath of people, suffering from unmitigated injustice.
As a pioneer in advocating international recognition of Lithuania’s declaration of independence in 1990-91, when we were still occupied by the USSR—do you see any similarities between the Palestinian situation now and the Lithuanian situation then?
The similarities are obvious, aren’t they? Let us cite some of them: The Palestinians have been occupied by a superior military power for 44 years—and so were you. The occupying power, Israel, is in breach of the basic principles of international law and international treaty obligations. So was the Soviet Union in your case. You were at the mercy of a superior military power. So are they. The Soviet Union tried to force you into submission by economic sanctions. So do the Israelis, supported by the US. The US and Germany said that your declaration of independence on March 11 in 1990 was “premature.” They urged you to withdraw or “freeze” it. They are still at it. Their advice should be rejected, now—just as then. But are there any differences? Of course there are. Some say that whereas you used only peaceful means, the Palestinians have resorted to armed struggle. What do you do, when a superior, occupying power excludes peaceful means? Remember the “Forest Brothers”? I would never condemn them. Rather I admire their heroism.
Palestine is divided, both geographically (between the West Bank and Gaza) and politically (between Fatah and Hamas). At the end of the current electoral period, Palestine will have no legitimate governing body. Should this deter us from supporting their statehood?
The Palestinians do have legitimate governing bodies, their mandate established through democratic elections, just as you did in 1989–90. The geographical partition of Palestine is partly a consequence of the illegal occupation and is wholly irrelevant for the justification of the Palestinians’ claim for statehood.
Should we base the right to an independent state on historical examination or on the right of the people living in a defined territory?
All nations have an inalienable right to national self-determination, based on their national identity and cultural heritage as well as the established tradition of living in a defined territory. Statehood in the past may strengthen your case for restoration of independence, but it is not a precondition.
Some people say that the Palestinians must reject the use of military force, prior to recognition. Do you agree?
It is the Palestinians, by the way, who have been living under a military occupation for 44 years—not the other way round. Gaining statehood is not the end of the story. The new Palestinian state would have to negotiate with the occupying power to withdraw their troops from its territory—just as you did negotiate troop withdrawal with the USSR-successor state in 1994. The two states must define the ultimate borders of their territory through negotiations. They will have to negotiate a host of other issues, as is well known. But they should do so as two independent states, on the basis of equality. The relationship of a colonial master and subjugated, inferior people should be ended. That is the only way to break out of the current impasse. If the international community can help, it should do so. We should recognise that the US is out of the game. A representative of a small nation, such as the former president of Finland, Mr Ahtisaari with a solid reputation and a proven track record in conflict-solving, would be a suitable candidate.
Hamas has the declared aim to annihilate Israel. Should we not insist that they withdraw that declaration before recognition of statehood is considered?
My understanding is that Hamas has rejected Israel’s right to exist on occupied territory. That is a simple fact of international law. You don’t establish a state on occupied territory, which belongs to others. You can hardly expect the international community to recognise such use of force. Can you? This is one of the issues to be settled through direct negotiations between the two states.
The Baltic road to freedom was peaceful. With their track record of terrorist attacks on civilian targets, do the Palestinians deserve recognition of their statehood?
In January 1991 those in power in the Kremlin had decided that it should no longer be peaceful. The decision was made to crack down on your embryonic statehood by military force, on the pretext that it was being done to protect national minorities and even human rights! Mr Gorbachev’s claim to a respectful place in history rests on the fact that at the last moment he withdrew from the abyss. That is why the Baltic nations could secede from the colonial power peacefully. If Mr. Gorbachev had persisted in using force, it would have resulted in a huge bloodbath. Are the current extremists in power in Israel as farsighted as Mr Gorbachev? Unfortunately not. That’s why they need help.
Remember: There was a time when Western leaders (e.g. both Mr Reagan and Mrs Thatcher) nicknamed Nelson Mandela as a “communist terrorist.” Mr Mandela is now revered the world over as a global symbol of forgiveness and reconciliation. His is the great example of a peaceful solution of a long pestering conflict. He has set a shining example for the rest of us to follow.
Shouldn’t small states simply be content to follow the leadership of the major powers, when it comes to solving controversial international issues?
Well, we didn’t, did we—when we decided to support your claim to restored independence against the paternalistic advice of Messrs., Bush and Kohl?
Do you feel Alþingi made the right decision in ratifying Palestine as a sovereign state? What do you believe the effects will be, if any?
Yes, indeed. If Alþingi would have followed the cowardly position of the Independence Party, not daring to take a stand, we should all have had reason to be ashamed of ourselves. Our Foreign Minister Össur Skarphéðinsson deserves credit for his initiative in support of an independent Palestine. It takes some courage to dare to do the right thing, even if the majority of Western democracies have abandoned their own declared principles of acknowledging the inalienable right of every nation to national self-determination. Fortunately, a vast majority of UN-member states (132) welcomed Palestinian membership to UNESCO. Hence, the Palestinians have the right in the future to refer the Israeli army’s war crimes to the international court in the Hague. This is therefore a significant step on the road towards Palestinian statehood.