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’s statehood to over 140 of the 193 members of the United Nations. And yet Palestine is still not a legal state.

Moreover, the current political consensus is that the best solution to the Israel/Palestine conflict is a two-state solution, and back in 2016, the UN 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 US 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 also been hesitant to recognize Palestine, arguing that important conditions have not yet been met. “[Recognition of Palestinian statehood] must be useful, that is to say [it must] 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”? It won’t “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.

There is no formal legal process by which statehood is established; a state exists through statements and decisions made by other states. Political entities may announce their own statehood through declarations—a form of self-determination—but this in itself is not sufficient for statehood. The recognition of statehood depends on others—or to put it another way, “you are as others see you.”

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 UN membership in 2011. The UN General Assembly (UNGA) voted in 2012 to upgrade Palestine’s status from “observer” to a “non-member Permanent Observer State,” like the Holy See, but no more. (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 UN 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 UAE Ambassador Mohamed Abushahab at the time.

But full membership of the United Nations goes beyond a General Assembly decision; it needs approval by the Security Council, with its five permanent members having veto power. In April this year, as it has done in the past on issues involving Israel and Palestine, the United States exercised its veto on a vote to recognize Palestine as a full member. The US was the only member who voted against the proposal, with twelve votes in favor and two abstentions from Britain and Switzerland.

Why the US veto? US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan presented President Biden’s position on Palestinian statehood following the recent statements by Norway, Ireland and Spain: “[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,” he said.  “That's a principled position that we have held on a consistent basis.”

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

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