The Palestinian quest for state recognition (Playing the IR Game)

The saga of the Palestinian bid for international state recognition rumbles on, a few weeks after the sound and fury of lodging its official UN bid, and now most recently with the decision by UNESCO members to admit it as a full member. And for the first time in many years, it seems, the Palestinians are off the back foot in the stagnated, moribund international ‘peace process’.

In one sense, UNESCO as an organization has been caught in the crossfire: as a legal requirement, the US will be ending financial contributions to the agency, amounting to a not insignificant 22% of its annual budget, invariably affecting its ability to continue its programs over the next year and beyond. For the Palestinians, the practicalities of its new membership seem slight: the ability to apply to have sites in the West Bank listed as World Heritage Sites may be the most notable.

In other international agencies which will surely see similar bids for Palestinian membership in coming weeks and months, the practical consequences may be greater for the Palestinians. But this is, as other cases of state recognition illustrate, about little else other than politics, where the material consequences of such action are downplayed or willfully ignored. In the footsteps of Kosovo and south Sudan in the past year, and as the efforts to recognise the National Transitional Council rebels as Libya’s legitimate government, well ahead of its offensive surge that finally ousted the Gaddafi government, illustrate, recognition is a symbolic gesture, and a political calculation above all else.

Why here, and why now? The very reason for the Palestinian Authority’s ‘recognition’ strategy, which began nearly a year ago with bilateral efforts targeted at developing countries and is now reaching its apogee at the UN and multilateral agencies, lies in its internal battle with Hamas for political legitimacy in the Palestinian territories. The prisoner swap deal just two weeks ago that saw a captured Israeli soldier transferred in exchange for a thousand Palestinian prisoners, has provided a contrasting boost for Hamas, as the two different Palestinian political factions, secular and Islamist, and crucially with different perspectives on the use of violence, attempt to demonstrate their relevance to the Palestinian population. And yet, if the PA’s throw of the diplomatic dice seems futile, it is because in the US, as the 2012 election year ticks closer and closer, Obama’s back is up against the wall in having to placate the Israel lobby at home; having to put its cards on the table, these have turned out to be unequivocally in favour of a highly nationalist Israeli government. Juxtaposed against a largely succesful diplomatic campaign to mobilize a majority of the world’s states around its cause, the Palestinians now hold the cards of the moral high ground, and are actually being seen to do something with it.

In the politics of recognition are attempts to set the boundaries by which new states may be admitted into the ‘international community’ as full members. The 1933 Montevideo Convention on the Rights and Duties of States is one such attempt to establish what these criteria are, and others attempt to construct their own, seemingly objective, criteria for what statehood really means and should entail: territorial control, economic solvency, functioning governance structures; the list potentially goes on and on. These decisions are, however, ones ultimately mediated by political judgments, such that international recognition may create a legal reality that belies the ‘facts on the ground’. But perhaps thus was it always ever so.

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