Unilaterally recognizing a Palestinian State may seem like a good idea -- it isn't

As Israeli and Palestinian leaders seem forever unable to settle their differences and agree to live side-by-side, and as Israeli settlements continue to go up in Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, some states have begun to recognize a State of Palestine. In fact, the EU recently even seemed to imply that recognizing Israel implicitly meant recognizing Palestine. Wouldn't recognizing Palestine be a way to strong-arm the two sides into finally coming to an agreement and letting everybody get on with their lives? How likely is such an action?

As you may have guessed from the title, the answers are "not really" and "not very." First off, how good of an idea is unilateral recognition really? Recognition is a discretionary act. States are generally free to (not) recognize whomever they wish. Usually, though, one standard for recognition is that a state has a government that effectively controls its territory and the people in it. That can't be said for a would-be Palestine. There are three governments involved: the Palestinian Authority (Fatah), Israel, and Hamas.

"This is just legal doctrine," you might say. "Who cares?" It matters. By recognizing a Palestinian State, this would imply that relations between us and the Palestinian state are state-to-state. This would cause quite a legal pickle. States have a right to sovereignty and non-intervention. Doing business with Israel, whose presence would almost certainly be undesired within the new Palestine, could then be viewed as supporting an illegal breach of Palestinian sovereignty. This could conceivably allow the Palestinian Government to sue in, say, German courts companies and other organizations doing business with Israel deemed to support the government's occupation of another State.

This would force governments into uncomfortable situations. They should not recognize a Palestinian State unless they are ready for these situations and ready to be consistent with the implications for foreign policy. Most states in the "West" are not ready for this. They know this, too, which makes such a declaration unlikely until they are closer to being ready.

The other issue is more pragmatic: who would states do business with? Would they consider the PA the government of all of Palestine and ignore Hamas in Gaza (broadly in line with current policy)? Recognition by a majority of states around the globe might indeed force Israel out of Palestine, especially (and particularly) if the US were on board. This would cause a power vacuum, giving the PA and Hamas an opportunity to fight for control, but also opening up the possibility to further, smaller groups. International action could be required to stop the country from collapsing into violence, and Israel might simply go right back in.

In short: declaring that a Palestinian State exists would do nothing to solve immediate Palestinian problems. There still would be no unity and no viable government there. The border issue would still be unresolved, no matter what borders recognizing countries might unilaterally decide to recognize (if any, this is not a requirement of recognition). It would put additional pressure on Israel, which might cause less moderate groups to gain more power there, polarizing the situation further. Finally, it would cause legal conundrums at home. What would be the point of all that?

It is time to put more pressure on both sides to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. But the issues must be resolved from the ground up, starting with borders. A top-down approach based on unilateral recognition is messy, risky, and quite possibly counterproductive. There are no shortcuts when real resolve is what is really needed.


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