Palestine Scores Major Victory With Vatican Recognition of Statehood

While many argue that the Vatican’s statement Wednesday has no legal significance, it does have important symbolic weight.


With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process all but dead and buried, a growing chorus of countries and international bodies are moving toward recognizing Palestinian sovereignty in an attempt to push the Israeli government to make concessions toward their Palestinian rivals. On Wednesday, that effort received a powerful boost when Pope Francis announced that the Vatican has concluded a treaty recognizing the state of Palestine.

The move, a Vatican spokesman told the Associated Press, indicates a “recognition that the state exists.”

Following the collapse of U.S.-brokered talks to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Palestine has begun circumventing Washington by applying for membership at several U.N. bodies. It recently joined the International Criminal Court, where it’s lodged complaints over what it says are Israeli war crimes. The United Nations upgraded Palestine to a “non-member observer” in 2012, perturbing Israel, which faces increasing international isolation because of its continued occupation of Palestinian lands. Repeated fighting in the Gaza strip between Hamas militants and Israeli forces has further galvanized world opinion against Israel.

While many argue that the Vatican’s statement Wednesday has no legal significance, it does have important symbolic weight. The Vatican’s move can be seen as part of a growing movement to apply pressure on Israel to facilitate progress in the peace process. Following the re-election of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the United States signaled that it will re-evaluate the diplomatic protection it has offered Israel in the international fora where Palestine is now pursuing its claims to statehood. There is a growing movement at the United Nations Security Council to pass a resolution outlining a roadmap for future peace talks.

The Vatican statement is also the latest major diplomatic move by Francis, who since assuming the papacy in 2013, has emerged as an enormously popular champion of the global poor and other progressive causes. He has become a major diplomatic player, helping to broker the recent rapprochement between the United States and Cuba.

Wednesday’s announcement is not Francis’s first foray into Israeli-Palestinian politics. Francis expressed support for recent U.S.-backed talks and hosted then-Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas at the Vatican last year for a prayer meeting for peace in the Middle East. When he visited last year the Israeli-built wall that separates Israeli- and Palestinian-dominated territories, he lamented the “tragic consequences of the protracted conflict.”

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Justine Drennan was a fellow at Foreign Policy. She previously reported from Cambodia for the Associated Press and other outlets. Twitter: @jkdrennan