The practical effect of the Vatican’s decision to sign a treaty recognizing the state of Palestine is debatable, but it is a symbolic victory for Palestinians who are struggling to keep alive their dream of a Palestinian state, which has been thwarted by the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Vatican has effectively treated Palestine as a state since the United Nations General Assembly voted in 2012 to recognize Palestine as a nonmember observer state. It has been referring unofficially to the state of Palestine for at least a year. But the new treaty, addressing issues like properties, taxes and protocol at holy sites, will make clear the Vatican has formally switched its diplomatic relations from the Palestine Liberation Organization, which was named in earlier drafts, to the state of Palestine.
The announcement on Wednesday comes at an especially bleak moment for Israel-Palestinian peace efforts. American-led negotiations collapsed 13 months ago and Israel is about to install a new government that is widely considered more hard-line and hostile to a two-state solution than its predecessors.
On the eve of the March 17 elections, Mr. Netanyahu said flat out that no Palestinian state would be established during his tenure, and while he later softened his position, the possibility of any serious negotiating initiative seems dead. The guidelines for Israel’s new government even omitted the term “Palestinian state.”
Many experts believe that Israel’s expansion of housing units for Israelis in the West Bank and East Jerusalem has made establishing a territorially coherent Palestinian state nearly impossible. All of which has set the Palestinians on a quest for international recognition and support for sovereignty, ultimately to pressure Israel into talks.
Not surprisingly, Israel expressed disappointment at the Vatican’s decision and said it would not advance the cause of peace. Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America, was less restrained, telling The Washington Post the treaty represents a resurgence of the “historical Catholic enmity towards Jews.”
But Pope Francis has made it a point to improve relations with other religious denominations and has described the spiritual bond between Catholics and Jews as “very special.” Last month, he condemned anti-Semitic incidents in Europe and declared that Christians and Jews must defend one another from discrimination and persecution. He has also repeatedly demonstrated a commitment to social and humanitarian issues, speaking out with his moral authority on the need to confront inequality around the world.
While the Vatican’s announcement may carry special weight, it’s far from the only government to recognize Palestine. Some 135 nations have recognized a state of Palestine since 1988. In October, Sweden formally recognized the Palestinian state. In recent months, parliaments in Britain, Spain, France and Ireland have urged their governments to do the same. Meanwhile, international efforts are underway to increase pressure on Israel through boycotts and United Nations resolutions.
A negotiated Israeli-Palestinian deal on a two-state solution is the best chance for justice and peace. But given the complete breakdown of negotiations, it is likely that more governments, in supporting the claims of the Palestinian people, will formally accept Palestine as a state.