Why a Palestinian state matters

While no one thinks statehood is a panacea for Palestine’s many problems, it brings the country closer to the two-state settlement that most of the international community supports

The Palestinian flag flies over the UN headquarters in New York for the first time on June 1, 2021.  EPA
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When the State of Palestine was proclaimed in November 1988 during a meeting of the Palestine National Council in Algiers, the accompanying Declaration of Independence made it clear that the nation “believed in the solution of international and regional problems by peaceful means in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations” and “rejected the threat or use of force, violence and intimidation against its territorial integrity and political independence or those of any other State”.

Almost 36 years since the leadership of the State of Palestine committed itself to those laudable ideals, and in the teeth of a horrific war, the country’s people are inching closer to true sovereignty – that is, by securing international recognition as a state. Yesterday, three European countries – Ireland, Norway and Spain – took the historic step of saying they would recognise Palestine, joining the more than 140 nations who voted this month in New York in favour of supporting Palestine's bid for full UN membership.

Given the ongoing occupation of Palestinian territories, as well as the violence raging in Gaza and the West Bank that has claimed more than 35,000 Palestinian lives, many will ask what this will achieve. Recognising a state that does not exist in a functioning sense and that cannot exercise sovereignty over its territory may seem like a gesture rich in symbolism but lacking in substance.

This is not the case. While no one is suggesting that statehood is a panacea for Palestine’s many problems, it is nevertheless an essential step in moving towards the two-state solution that the vast majority of the international community supports. Recognition means changing the narrative from one in which a Palestinian state is an ill-defined goal to be reached as part of some far-off negotiations, to one in which two entities – the State of Israel and the State of Palestine – confront their problems as legal and diplomatic equals in international law.

Recognition means Palestinians can access diplomatic mechanisms for the future resolution of issues such as the status of Jerusalem, the rights of Palestinian refugees, access to water, financial disputes with Israel and so on. It importantly also means control over borders and air space. There are international routes to resolving such disputes but they can only be accessed by two states, not one state and a string of fragmented Palestinian cantons.

Sadly, the current situation is one in which a UN member state remains locked in conflict with a collection of people living in occupied territory and who lack a universally recognised state of their own. This is no basis for a settlement; it is a recipe for unending conflict.

Israeli engagement with a Palestinian state would not be a reward for the violence of Hamas, as some right-wing critics claim. Accepting Palestinian statehood is an unavoidable reality of building a secure future for Israelis, too. Israel’s response to yesterday’s news – withdrawing its ambassadors from friendly European countries – shows that there is unfortunately still a long way to go. Israel finds itself increasingly isolated, with only eight other countries voting with it against full Palestinian membership of the UN.

Similarly, there are serious obstacles to functioning statehood on the Palestinian side. Aside from the current war and an Israeli leadership that is dedicated to thwarting Palestinian independence, the fact that the current Palestinian leadership lacks widespread legitimacy, has little say in Gaza and is chronically divided between rival factions makes statehood even more challenging.

Nevertheless, the tide is turning and the handful of countries that still hold out against Palestinian statehood now find themselves outliers in the international community. The arguments for statehood are clear and there is no reason for Palestinians to wait another 36 years for a country of their own.

Published: May 23, 2024, 3:00 AM