STOCKHOLM (AP) — Sweden on Thursday became the biggest Western European country to recognize a Palestinian state, prompting a strong protest from Israel, which swiftly withdrew its ambassador from Stockholm.
The move by Sweden's new left-leaning government reflects growing international impatience with Israel's nearly half-century control of the West Bank, east Jerusalem and its blockade of the Gaza Strip. It also comes during increased tensions between Arabs and Jews over Israel's plans to build 1,000 housing units in east Jerusalem.
Foreign Minister Margot Wallstrom said Sweden, fulfilling a promise made when the Social Democratic-led government took office earlier this month, believes the Palestinians have met the criteria under international law for such recognition.
"There is a territory, a people and government," she told reporters in Stockholm, adding that Sweden was the 135th country in the world to recognize a Palestinian state.
It is the third Western European nation to do so, after Malta and Cyprus. Some Eastern European countries recognized a Palestinian state during the Cold War.
Israel was quick to condemn Sweden's announcement, with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman describing it as "a miserable decision that strengthens the extremist elements and Palestinian rejectionism."
"It's a shame that the government of Sweden chose to take a declarative step that only causes harm," he added.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson said Israel's ambassador to Sweden was being recalled for consultations but declined to say how long he would remain in Israel.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, welcomed the move by Sweden, a European Union member, as "a principled and courageous decision."
"It is our hope that other EU member states and countries worldwide will follow Sweden's lead and recognize Palestine before the chances for a two-state solution are destroyed indefinitely," Ashrawi said.
Israel says Palestinians can gain independence only through peace negotiations, and that recognition of Palestine at the U.N. or by individual countries undermines the negotiating process. Palestinians say Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu isn't serious about the peace negotiations.
The latest round of U.S.-brokered talks collapsed in April. American officials have hinted that Israel's tough negotiating stance hurt the talks, and Netanyahu has continued to settle Israelis in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
More than 550,000 Israelis now live in the two areas, greatly complicating hopes of partitioning the area under a future peace deal. The two territories and the Gaza Strip are claimed by Palestinians for a future state.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said the U.S. supports Palestinian statehood but added it can only come through negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians that resolve status issues and end their conflict.
"Some countries (are) responding to the lack of a resolution of a peace process out there," she said.
Wallstrom, the Swedish foreign minister, said she had anticipated Israeli criticism against Sweden's decision.
"It happens that ambassadors are recalled for consultations. It is part of the diplomatic toolkit," Wallstrom said. "I am convinced that both our countries have an interest in maintaining and strengthening our good bilateral ties."
While the U.S. and European powers have so far refrained from recognizing Palestinian independence, they have become increasingly critical of Israeli settlement construction. The 28-nation European Union has urged that negotiations to achieve a two-state solution resume as soon as possible.
In a symbolic move, British lawmakers earlier this month voted in favor of recognizing Palestine as a state.
Some other Western European countries — including Germany, Denmark and Finland — have said they're not planning to follow Sweden's lead.
Associated Press writers Matti Huuhtanen in Helsinki, Karin Laub in Jerusalem and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.