The Unfinished Journey of Palestinian Statehood

On May 22, Palestine was recognized as a state by Norway, Ireland, and Spain, bringing the number of countries recognizing Palestine as a state to over 140 of the 193 members of the United Nations. Yet, Palestine is still not a legal state. Moreover, the current political consensus is that the best solution to the Israel/Hamas conflict is a two-state solution. Already in 2016, the U.N. Security Council reaffirmed support for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders. But in order to have a two-state solution, there must be two states.

Why hasn’t full Palestinian recognition happened?

The United States accepts the theoretical two-state solution but at this point rejects Palestinian statehood.  Following the recent recognition of Palestinian statehood by the three countries, “a U.S. official familiar with the discussions stressed that Washington had made clear to the three … that recognizing a Palestinian state would not be useful,” Politico reported.

Several European countries, including major powers like France, have been hesitant to recognize Palestine as well, arguing that important conditions have not yet been met. “This decision [by Spain, Ireland, and Norway] must be useful, that is to say allow a decisive step forward on the political level,” French Foreign Minister Stéphane Séjourné said in a statement. “France does not consider that the conditions have been met to date for this decision to have a real impact on this process,” she added.

Recognizing Palestine is not “useful”? Will not “have a real impact”? The Spanish prime minister disagreed. “Recognition of the state of Palestine is not only a matter of historic justice…it is also an essential requirement if we are all to achieve peace,” Pedro Sanchez explained.

States formally exist through decisions by other states. If you are as others see you, who are the “others” who will determine Palestine’s statehood? There is no formal legal process by which statehood is established. While political entities may announce their statehood through declarations, a form of self-determination, the recognition of statehood depends on others. Self-declarations are necessary, but not sufficient for statehood.

For example, in February 2008, the Kosovo Assembly declared Kosovo’s independence as the Republic of Kosovo. That status is recognized by seventy-four members of the United Nations. Yet, the Republic of Kosovo is not a universally recognized legal state. In fact, several countries have said they will never recognize Kosovo as a state, including Serbia, Russia, Argentina, Cuba, Vietnam, North Korea and Libya.

State recognition is a political decision. Although an entity may have what is necessary to be considered a state – people, territory, government and sovereignty – it is the political decision of other states that allows a state to be officially recognized.

The most obvious avenue to formal recognition is through the United Nations. Following a 1988 Palestinian Declaration of Independence which was recognized by more than seventy countries, Palestine applied for U.N. membership in 2011. The U.N. General Assembly (UNGA) voted to upgrade Palestine’s status from “observer” to a “non-member Permanent Observer State” in 2012, like the Holy See, but no more.

(Interestingly, the upgrading happened on the same day, according to UN News, “that the UN observed the annual International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. Established in 1977, the Day marks the date in 1947 when the Assembly adopted a resolution partitioning then-mandated Palestine into two States, one Jewish and one Arab.”)

Recent attempts to grant Palestine full U.N. membership and legal status have accelerated as a result of Israel’s overwhelming reaction to the October 7 Hamas attack. The UNGA adopted a resolution in early May declaring that Palestine qualifies for full-member status at the United Nations by a vote of 143 to 9 with twenty-five abstaining. “The vast majority of countries in this hall are fully aware of the legitimacy of the Palestinian bid and the justness of their cause,” declared the U.A.E. Ambassador Mohamed Abushahab at the time.

But full membership in the United Nations goes beyond a General Assembly decision; it needs approval by the Security Council, with its five permanent members having veto power. As it has done in the past on issues involving Israel and Palestine, the United States vetoed a Security Council vote to have Palestine recognized as a full member of the U.N. The vote was twelve in favor and one — the United States — opposed, with abstentions from Britain and Switzerland.

Why the U.S. veto? U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan presented President Biden’s position on Palestinian statehood following the three countries’ latest recognition: “He [Biden] has been equally emphatic on the record that the two-state solution should be brought about through direct negotiations through the parties, not through unilateral recognition, that’s a principled position that we have held on a consistent basis.” he said.

According to the United States, therefore, it will only recognize Palestinian statehood after direct negotiations between the parties. Negotiations between which parties? Sullivan did not elaborate who will directly negotiate and under whose authority Palestinian statehood will happen.

“You are as others see you” is a general phrase that lacks a definition of the others. The recognition of statehood is based on politics, privilege, and positions of power. The United States alone can block Palestinian U.N. full membership and statehood recognition. This is neither democratic nor objective. Will the new dynamic favoring Palestine in light of Israel’s horrific aggression overcome the United States’ position? Despite that dynamic, as the former Swiss Ambassador to Israel Jean-Daniel Ruch perceptively observed: “a Two-States solution remains desirable and is technically feasible…the political will to make the brave and risky investments to open a genuine peace perspective is nowhere as massive as it should be.”

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.