Stockholm:Sweden on Thursday officially recognised the state of Palestine, becoming the first major European country to do so, in a move hailed as "historic" by Palestinians but denounced by Israel.
"Today the government takes the decision to recognise the state of Palestine," Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallstroem wrote in the mass-circulation Dagens Nyheter daily, less than a month after the country`s new prime minister announced the government`s plans to make the controversial move.
"It is an important step that confirms the Palestinians` right to self-determination," she said. "We hope that this will show the way for others."
Wallstroem told reporters at a briefing Thursday that "we are not picking sides. We`re choosing the side of the peace process."
Palestinians are seeking to achieve statehood in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza with east Jerusalem as the capital. With little progress on reaching a settlement, they have been lobbying foreign powers for international recognition.
Sweden`s move comes as Israeli-Palestinian tensions soar in Jerusalem following months of almost daily clashes in the city`s occupied eastern sector.
Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas immediately hailed Stockholm`s decision as "brave and historic" and called for others to follow suit.
"All countries of the world that are still hesitant to recognise our right to an independent Palestinian state based on 1967 borders, with east Jerusalem as its capital, (should) follow Sweden`s lead," his spokesman quoted him as saying.
But Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman denounced the move, saying "relations in the Middle East are a lot more complex than the self-assembly furniture of IKEA".
"The decision of the Swedish government to recognise a Palestinian state is a deplorable decision which only strengthens extremist elements and Palestinian rejectionism," he said in a statement.
"It is a shame that the Swedish government chose to take this declarative step which causes a lot of harm and offers no advantage."Sweden`s new Prime Minister Stefan Loefven, a Social Democrat, announced in his inaugural address to parliament in early October that his country would become the first EU member in western Europe to recognise a Palestinian state.
While the Palestinians cheered the move, Israel summoned Sweden`s ambassador to protest and express disappointment.
The United States cautioned Sweden against recognition, calling it "premature" and saying the Palestinian state could only come through a negotiated solution between Israelis and Palestinians.
Israel has long insisted that the Palestinians can only receive their promised state through direct negotiations and not through other diplomatic channels.
The UN General Assembly overwhelmingly approved the recognition of Palestine as a non-member observer state in 2012.
Sweden`s announcement brings to 135 the number of countries that recognise the state of Palestine.
However the United States, the European Union and most of its member states do not.
In a symbolic vote indicative of growing impatience with peace talks which have effectively been stalled for a year, Britain`s parliament earlier this month also passed a non-binding resolution to give diplomatic recognition to a Palestinian state.
Wallstroem, in Thursday`s opinion piece, said that there were some "who will maintain that today`s decision comes too early."
"I`m afraid it comes too late," she wrote. "The government will now have to work with the other EU countries as well as the United States and other regional and international actors for the support of new negotiations."
In Thursday`s announcement, Sweden`s foreign minister said that "the government considers that international law criteria for recognition of a Palestinian state have been fulfilled."
Observers said it was too early to tell if the Swedish step would prompt other countries to make similar moves.
"It`s really hard to say how many countries will actually take the plunge and follow Sweden," said Michael Schulz, an expert on the Middle East and conflict issues at the University of Gothenburg.
"For the EU to recognise Palestine, that would require all member states to agree, so it`s unlikely," he said, estimating that Stockholm`s decision "shouldn`t change much" over the short term.
"We must see how Israel will react, if they will continue their policy of settlement or if they will instead be more cautious."