FEW areas of international law are as fraught as the issue of what makes a state. And few questions of statehood have been as fraught as Palestine’s. On October 13th the British parliament voted that Palestine should be officially regarded as a state alongside Israel (though the government is not bound by this decision). The British debate followed the announcement on October 3rd by Sweden’s new government that it was ready to recognise Palestine as a state (though it seems to have backtracked from this since then). How does a place become a state?
The Montevideo Convention on the rights and duties of states, signed by 20 countries in North and South America in 1933, sets four criteria for becoming a state: a permanent population, a government, defined borders and the capacity to enter into relations with other states. But these are little more than guidelines. Many places recognised as states do not comply. Libya has more than one government. Many states emerged after national movements declared independence and then sought recognition by other states and admission into the United Nations. Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), declared Palestine a state in 1988 in Algiers, and has subsequently secured recognition from over 130 states, or over two-thirds of the UN.
But Palestine’s admission into the UN has been tortuously slow. In 1974 the PLO won recognition as a “non-member observer entity” at the UN, a category shared by OPEC, the Arab League and the African Development Bank, among others. In 2012 the UN General Assembly upgraded its status to a non-member state, putting it on a par with the Holy See. This means it can apply for entry to UN bodies, and is now a member of UNESCO. However, Palestine needs the prior approval of the UN Security Council to be admitted as a full member state. Until now, it has failed to marshal the backing of at least nine of the 15 member states required to bring a resolution to the vote. Despite this, Palestine might try to table a motion to improve its prospects of statehood next month. The Palestinian delegation at the UN has circulated a draft resolution seeking an end to Israel’s 47-year-long occupation by November 2016 if negotiations with Israel have failed to secure a two-statement settlement by then. France could yet be the swing player. If it voted in favour, other countries might follow suit. Israel would then look to President Obama’s administration to veto the resolution.
For all the diplomatic machinations, Israel argues, with some Western backing, that the reality on the ground is what counts. The reunification of Gaza and the West Bank under prime minister Rami Hamdullah, an appointee of president Mahmoud Abbas, helps Palestine edge towards fulfilling the Montevideo attributes. But as one Israeli official points out, it still has two separate security forces, no defined borders or capital, and under the Oslo Accords is formally limited in conducting its foreign policy. In addition, Palestinians remain under Israeli military occupation with all but one of their entry and exit points controlled by Israeli forces. Only when negotiations which began in 1991 come to fruition, says Israel, can Palestine hope to gain independence and secure recognition from the states that matter. Palestine’s UN diplomacy might win it more of the international trappings of a state, but without a deal with Israel the reality for its people will remain the Israeli occupation.