The state of Palestine

Why not?

Why not?

Statehood isn’t some metaphysical essence, but created, like other social facts such as property and marriage, by the recognition of others, in this case, other states. Liechtenstein and the Holy See are states because other states say they are, though they don’t control their own gas supply. The Tamil Tigers, at their peak far bigger than either, were never a state because nobody accepted them as one. Recognition is partly – and for hardcore realists only – a matter of fact: does this entity, however nasty, exercise effective and autonomous control over a territory and population? (Soviet-era Belarus didn’t meet the autonomy part. Lukashenko’s Belarus does.) Partly it’s a long-range moral judgement: does this entity, however unsatisfactory its current leadership and shaky its power, deserve to exist, and enjoy the rights of statehood under international law?

Israel and its US protector have clearly been caught napping by the surprising development of a well-thought-out Palestinian initiative, now backed strongly by Turkey. A draft resolution in the UN Security Council on Palestinian statehood will be vetoed (the US explanation will be interesting reading as it has to address Arabs as well as AIPAC). Another resolution in the General Assembly will pass by a large majority. Following this a lot of countries will recognize Palestine, with more or less fancy footwork over its borders. Palestinian leaders will rename themselves as Ministers, fly new flags on their cars and offices, and lots of ambassadors will be appointed.

The new state will continue to have a bitter dispute with its neighbour Israel over borders, settlements, Jerusalem as the capital, free movement, water, and refugee return: exactly the same disputes that the Palestinian Authority has now. Can anybody explain to me why Palestinian statehood makes these disputes more intractable? And it would clear the air by removing the non-issue of state recognition from the table.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

17 thoughts on “The state of Palestine”

  1. I don’t think it will make matters any harder, but it won’t make them much easier either. The big legitimacy hump was passed awhile ago, when the US (and even Israel!) formally adopted the two-state solution. But Palestine still does not control its population or territory, and will not do so as long as Israel continues on its present policies.

    About the only thing that is really changing is the gradual (self-)delegitimization of Israel. This might get autocatalytic, if Israeli emigration rates increase. (Remember, most Russian emigres would rather go to Germany than Israel, although the US remains the #1 choice.) If the EU is as anti-Israel as the Israeli right pretends, all it has to do to destroy Israel is open its borders to Israeli emigres, and pick up the excellent Israeli high-tech firms.

  2. >Can anybody explain to me why Palestinian statehood makes these disputes more intractable?

    Well, to begin with, if Palestine is a “state” then military incursions by Israel automatically become violations of the UN charter. They go from “something we can argue about” directly to “what’s the difference between this and Sadam’s invasion of Kuwait”?

  3. Tangurena,
    You probably know more about the UN charter than I do, but can’t Israel argue self-defense when it makes an incursion into the Palestinian state? Nobody thought it was an automatic violation of the UN charter when the US invaded Afghanistan, except maybe the Taliban. A decent lawyer can usually cobble a prima facie defense of almost anything.

  4. Aren’t military incursions by Israel among the things that generally make the disputes less tractable and should be discouraged by third parties? In any case Israel retains the right to self-defence against Palestine (containing out-of-control Hamas) as much as against Lebanon (containing out-of-control Hezbollah). That won’t change. The framing gradually will, and in what looks to me like a good direction. (Update: Sorry, Ebenezer beat me to it).

  5. Ebenezer points to the issue: the israeli government will no longer be able to do the quantum-superposition trick it uses now, where the palestinians are an internal israeli matter when it comes to “security” and land grabs but someone else’s problem when it comes to subsistence and economic development.

    This may make the disputes (for the short and middle term at least) more intractable the same way, say, that in the US the “mainstream” GOP’s slide into psychotic break from reality has made economic or environmental policy more intractable.

  6. Two scenarios: First, and most likely, from the newly minted Palestinian state, Hamas fires rockets into Israel. For any other country, that would be an act of war. Israel then invades and occupies and we’re back to square one. How long do you think that will take to happen?

    Second, assume Israel would accept a Palestinian state. What would be the borders of the new Palestine? Israel will not accept the pre-1967 boundaries, and indeed shouldn’t have to. Resolution 242 only said they would be the basis for the final settlement, not the final settlement itself. To my knowledge, the UN has never set international borders before. Even the boundaries of the original state of Israel were set by the War of Independence. so, given the military imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians, a Palestinian War of Independence would end very badly for the Palestinians. There would be more displaced Palestinians and things would be much worse than before.

    Just for the record, I do accept the need for a two state solution and the faster the better. For the reasons outlined above, I don’t think this is the solution.

  7. Following on to Joe’s comment, I wonder what responsibilities the new state of Palestine would have. Would rocket attacks from Gaza now legitimately be the responsibility of the Palestinian government? What about protection of Israeli settlers who live in the newly created state? I’m no fan of the settlements, but there are people there, after all. Probably some sort of deal with Israel would be negotiated, but whose responsibility is the physical safety of the settlers while that’s being worked out?

  8. Doesn’t make the problems there more intractable, but what does it do to resolve them?

    Either Palestine lacks the capacity to prevent cross border attacks on it’s neighbors, or it wants them. In the former case, I don’t see how Palestine qualifies to be considered a state. In the latter, it would be a state instantly in a state of war with a hugely superior adversary.

    We can talk about the need for a two state solution, but Israel isn’t the real obstacle to such a solution. It’s Palestine.

  9. Brett,
    You try to set up the horns of a dilemma. I don’t think that your first horn exists, and the second horn, although real, points in odd directions.

    First horn. For a long while, Ireland didn’t have the capacity to prevent cross-border attacks on the UK. (It probably still doesn’t, but the attacks are gone, at least for the time being.) Does that mean that Ireland did not qualify to be considered a state? In Turkey’s eyes, Iraq–even the unquestionably statal Saddam Hussein’s Iraq–did not have the capacity to prevent cross-border attacks on Turkey by the PKK. Is/was Iraq not a state? You could view Mexican drug smuggling as an attack on the US. Mexico is low on capacity; is it not a state? Or you could view US drug consumption as an attack on Mexico. (Many Mexicans do.) The US certainly doesn’t seem to have much capacity to stop it. And so on and so forth.

    The second horn of your dilemma has a little more bite, but only a little. The word “want” is a tricky one, as states do not have desires–only interests, perceived by governments. This gets one bogged down in a morass of subjectivity. You could argue that the Israeli government has an interest in cross-border attacks on it. (It sure helps Likud in the polls.) Does that put it in a state of war with a hugely superior adversary–the entire world? Maybe.

  10. The main problem I see with this is that it continues to feed the lack of, for want of a better word, “reality-based” political reasoning, the Palestinian and more generally Arab fantasy that they can get what they want without giving anything up. This got them nothing in 1948. And again nothing in 1967. And since then, nothing. So, ok, Palestine will be “recognized” as a “state” by some governments and organizations. It will be a “state” without borders; without control over movement into or out of its territory; in some sense without territory at all. And its government will be — the PA? The PLO? Hamas? Etc.

    Confusing symbols with what they actually mean is sometimes harmless; but we’re all prone to harness this kind of confusion as a defense mechanism in support of our preferred fantasies. That doesn’t strike me as harmless in this instance because in my view that’s been a big part of the problem in the first place.

  11. The first answer to the “why not” question is that there is little doubt that this will result in immediate violence instigated by the Palestinians. They will claim frustration due to the U.S. veto of their state in the Security Council and the refusal of Israel to treat them as a state. This approach by the PA is based on their view,just repeated by Abbas, that all of Israel is occupied territory, when he said that they have been occupied for 63 years! The action at the General Assembly legitimizes this position, effectively ending the international acceptance of the existence of the Jewish State. Can a state exist without a clue as to its border? Will the borders be unilaterally determined by the General Assembly, with no legal right to do so? A unilateral declaration violates PA agreements with Israel and all the international frameworks for Mideast peace. The PA is seeking to bypass a negotiated settlement, bypass the need for necessary compromises through the application of international coercion on Israel. The declaration of Palestinian statehood outside the context of a negotiated settlement violates the interim Agreement from 1995, which expressly prohibits unilateral action by either side to change the status of the West Bank and Gaza. A unilateral declaration of Palestinian statehood will end any incentive for the PA to negotiate and compromise. It will also allow the Palestinians to continue to avoid the important step of mutual recognition, which includes Israel’s right to exist as the nation-state of the Jewish people. This issue lies at the core of the conflict and its avoidance will harm efforts to reach a genuine peace. The Palestinian Authority currently fails to meet the established legal tests for statehood. In particular, the PA does not pass the test of effective government: it does not rule the territory in question. The PA does not have effective control over the Hamas-run Gaza Strip. Hamas seeks Israel’s destruction and rejects the most basic conditions of the international community for recognition as a legitimate actor in the region (recognition of Israel’s right to exist, acceptance of existing agreements and an end to violence). Why not indeed.

  12. A minor quibble: The Holy See is not a state, but rather a non-state sovereign entity in international law.

  13. What’s heartbreaking about Israel painting itself into this corner is how hesitant, how reluctant they were to occupy the West Bank in the first place, during the 1967 war. A modicum of restraint on King Hussein’s part would have stayed their hand. For want of a nail….

  14. Anonymous:
    “The action at the General Assembly legitimizes this position, effectively ending the international acceptance of the existence of the Jewish State.”
    No draft UNGA resolution has been presented SFIK, nor would this make sense at present since the Palestinians have decided to try the Security Council first. They will adapt the text to the Security Council vote and the terms of the likely American veto. It’s premature (and IMHO absurd) to assume that the resolution will try to de-recognize Israel: why should the Palestinians lose votes by going back on what they already conceded at Oslo?
    I’m afraid your comment reads like a random assemblage of old AIPAC talking points rather than a coherent argument. This is probably going to happen. Small diplomatic win for the Palestinians. Deal with it.

  15. Herschel: Counter-quibble: the state is it seems the Vatican City, which the Holy See (a non-state entity) runs as a theocracy. Stalin famously asked “How many divisions has the Pope?”. Answer: apparently more than Hitler, since he failed to bring down the Soviet Union.

  16. James W.:
    I’m not sure I view this a a diplomatic win for Palestine. The one thing we mostly seem to agree on this thread is that recognition doesn’t do much for the Palestinians. All it really does is get the Israelis’ goat, and maybe some very marginal delegitimization for Israel. The game theory is simple. Adopting the resolution is worth close to nothing for the Palestinians and has some negative value for the Israelis. Is it in the Palestinians’ interest to get the resolution adopted?

    No. It is in the Palestinians’ interest to threaten adoption, and then trade adoption off for something that benefits the Palestinians. The Israelis didn’t have anything they wanted to trade, or at least didn’t have anything that the Palestinians wanted. The Palestinians were therefore obliged to execute their threat to preserve the credibility of their future threats. This gained them almost nothing (from an ex ante perspective) and lost them some ammunition that might have been useful in the future.

    It’s no big deal. The Israelis lose more legitimacy whenever something thuggish shows up on the teevee. (Israelis are not apartheid South Africans, but the Palestinians are very good at making them play them on teevee.) But even if it is a net loss for the Palestinians, it is not the kind of loss that somebody like Anonymous can take any pride in.

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