Palestinian statehood: to recognise, or not?

Given legitimate concerns over the implications for Palestinian rights arising from UN recognition of Palestinian statehood, John Reynolds considers whether Ireland should support the move.

With the Obama administration poised to use its Security Council veto to block Palestine’s bid to gain full UN membership next week, the most likely outcome is an upgrade of Palestine’s existing observer status by the General Assembly from ‘entity’ to ‘non-member state’. Another alternative is that the General Assembly will simply be asked to grant collective recognition to a Palestinian state, without any formal change to Palestine’s observer status. The necessary General Assembly majority for either of those options is already guaranteed by the support of Asian, African and Latin American states for Palestinian statehood, but the weight of the UN’s recognition can be bolstered by the endorsement of EU states, who await full details of the Palestinian request with a view to arriving at a common voting position. With that in mind, what factors should sway Irish government considerations in advance of next week’s assembly?

Despite the ‘tremendous value’ that President Mahmoud Abbas has claimed will be brought to all Palestinians by recognised statehood, the initiative has failed to generate much excitement on the streets of the West Bank and Gaza. This comes as no surprise, given the paucity of return from a long history of Palestinian attempts to engage with the United Nations and the mechanisms of international law. The deluge of ‘soft’ (non-binding) law that has flowed in favour of the Palestinians—countless UN resolutions; an advisory opinion of the International Court of Justice that Israel’s Wall in the West Bank is illegal; no end of fact-finding missions and reports—has failed to effect any meaningful improvement to their situation. On the contrary, the architecture of Israel’s occupation continues to be entrenched, with yet more Israeli settlement units in the West Bank being approved for construction as recently as last week. A Palestinian state on a piece of paper in New York will be of little consolation to the farmer in Nablus whose land and livelihood have been appropriated.

The statehood initiative has also been met with suspicion from elements of Palestinian civil society and the diaspora, with many feeling that the aspirant government of a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders - the Palestinian Authority - lacks democratic legitimacy and is concerned only with its own fiefdom in the West Bank. As such, there are well-founded concerns over the potential displacement of the PLO (the ‘parent’ organisation of the Palestinian Authority, and the recognised representative of the Palestinian people as a whole) from its UN observer seat by a State of Palestine that would not be mandated to represent the 1.3 million Palestinian citizens of Israel or the 5 million Palestinian refugees. Such fears could be allayed if the UN were to recognise the state without the PLO’s position at the UN being affected. Senior Palestinian officials have indicated that the rights of refugees will be addressed in the text of the submission to the UN. The failure to date of a leadership already severely lacking in credibility to provide clarity to Palestinian civil society on the PLO’s status does not breed confidence, however.

As far as relations with Israel are concerned, the notion that the two sides would suddenly find themselves negotiating their way through the current impasse on a miraculously levelled playing field is somewhat deluded. Rhetoric may suggest that all states are formally equal; geopolitical reality dictates that some states are, clearly, more equal than others. Any newly-acquired status for Palestine will do little in and of itself to neutralise the trump cards of military, economic and territorial dominance that Israel holds when it comes to the table. If anything, the Palestinian initiative is likely to prompt a diplomatic backlash from Benyamin Netanyahu’s government, possibly including the withholding of Palestinian tax and customs revenue collected by Israel.

So why should EU states support Palestine’s quest for recognition? Abbas has spoken of statehood paving the way for an internationalisation of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one. Foundational norms of international law relating to sovereignty and title to territory were formed in the colonial encounter, as a means to legitimise European conquest of ‘non-sovereign’ indigenous nations. Ever since the 1922 League of Nations mandate privileged Jewish interests in Palestine over the rights of unnamed “existing non-Jewish communities” (Arab Palestinians at that time accounted for 89% of the population), the exclusion of the Palestinians from the state-centric mechanisms of international law has owed much to a similar lack of established sovereignty.

Even short of full UN membership, collective recognition of Palestinian statehood would potentially remove such barriers and facilitate previously thwarted Palestinian efforts to ratify international treaties such as the Geneva Conventions, join specialised agencies like UNESCO, and access human rights mechanisms with more enforcement powers. The accountability of both the Palestinian and Israeli authorities would thereby be heightened.

Of significance in this regard is the possible role of the International Criminal Court (ICC), which to date has failed to decide whether it can accept jurisdiction over war crimes committed by Israeli and Palestinian forces, again on the basis of uncertainty over Palestinian statehood. The clarity provided by collective international recognition of Palestine could clear the way for the ICC to seize itself of the matter. With settlement construction in occupied territory coming within the ICC's mandate, it is not inconceivable that those responsible at the highest level for the dispossession of the Nablus farmer might end up answerable in the Hague. Procedural and political obstacles will remain, but if nothing else, the mere threat of ICC jurisdiction hanging over the actions of the Israeli military and Palestinian armed groups may help to curtail the level of violence that civilians of the region are routinely subjected to.

While there are potential benefits to the legal and institutional changes arising, however, recognition of Palestinian statehood by the UN is far from a panacea for all that ails the Middle East, and must not be placed on any such pedestal. What happens in the weeks and months after the dust has settled on next week’s diplomatic pantomime will be of far greater import. Much more struggle, solidarity and statesmanship is needed before a just solution in Palestine can be reached - whether in the form of an actual living, breathing Palestinian state within the 1967 borders and full rights for Palestinians in Israel, or a single democratic state. With the political environment of the Middle East in flux in the wake of the popular Arab uprisings, US hegemony waning, and Israel continuing to isolate itself through increasingly fraught relations with Turkey and Egypt, the stage is set for a shift in the regional dynamic that can only benefit the Palestinian struggle.

Recognition of statehood may ultimately be a more symbolic than pivotal moment in that struggle, but can at least represent a step in consolidating the legitimacy of the rights of the Palestinian nation. The alternative presented by the current status quo of incremental dispossession by Israel is unsustainable. The duplicity exhibited by those calling for a ‘two-state solution’ yet doing everything in their power to block Palestinian statehood is also glaring. Ireland has not always raised its voice on behalf of the oppressed as loudly as a post-colonial nation in a position of such political and economic privilege might have. The Irish government did, however, take a principled stand as one of the few EU member states to vote for the endorsement of the ‘Goldstone Report’ by the UN General Assembly in 2009. As long as the UN’s recognition of Palestinian statehood is clearly framed so as not to prejudice the rights of all Palestinians to representation and self-determination, the government should not shy away from backing it, and should press its EU counterparts to do likewise.



John Reynolds is a Government of Ireland Scholar and PhD Candidate at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, NUI Galway. He will be speaking on the implications of the Palestinian statehood bid at 7.30pm today (Thursday, 15 September) at the Teachers’ Club, 36 Parnell Square, Dublin 1. More details here.

Image top: KNLPhotos2010.