What's the impact of the recognition of a Palestinian state?

A man holding a traditional Irish drum painted to look like the Palestinian flag shouts and drums at a protest in Dublin, Ireland, 8 May 2024
Drumming for Gaza: there have been regular pro-Palestinian rallies in the Irish capital, Dublin, since the start of Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip in the wake of the Hamas attacks on Israel on 7 October (image: Artur Widak/NurPhoto/picture alliance)

Whether or not to recognise a Palestinian state is a decades-old debate. Advocates say the move would have legal and symbolic power, but critics argue it would not change the situation on the ground

By Cathrin Schaer

Recently, calls for the Western world to recognise a Palestinian state in its own right have been getting louder.

Although Germany does not consider current Palestinian territories a unified state, a majority of countries at the United Nations do – 139 out of a total of 193. What's significant this time, though, is that recognition is apparently being reconsidered by the US, a country that has previously vetoed almost every attempt to recognise a Palestinian nation.

The UK also seems to be thinking about it even though, in the past, the country has been just as opposed to the move as the US.

"What we need to do is give the Palestinian people a horizon towards a better future, the future of having a state of their own," British Foreign Secretary David Cameron said in February.

Spain, Norway and Ireland today all committed to recognising a Palestinian state.

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez (left) smiles broadly as he signs the visitors' book alongside Irish Prime Minister Simon Harris, Government Buildings, Dublin, Ireland, 12 April 2024
"Fighting the Hamas terrorist group is legitimate and necessary after October 7, but Netanyahu is causing so much pain, destruction and resentment in Gaza and the rest of Palestine that the two-state solution is in danger," PM Pedro Sánchez (left) told the Spanish parliament on Wednesday. He is pictured here with Irish PM Simon Harris. Both countries and Norway have announced that they will recognise Palestinian statehood later this month (image: Paul Faith/PA Wire/empics/picture alliance)

"More key players in the Middle East need movement toward a demilitarised Palestinian state today than at any time that I can remember," New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman wrote in February.

However, experts have urged caution about statements from the US and UK, suggesting they're likely being leaked or, in the case of the UK, openly voiced to put pressure on an increasingly defiant Israeli government, unfazed by close allies' growing discomfort with its tactics in Gaza.

When asked for clarification, US spokespeople have said that government policies have not changed for now.

Why is the idea controversial?

For many countries in the West, the idea has always been that the Palestinians' status change would come at the end of negotiations on what is known as the two-state solution, where Israel and a Palestinian nation exist side by side.

This is why the most recent statements and rumours have caused so much debate. Some say that recognition of a Palestinian state would be the first step toward a lasting and peaceful solution to this decades-old conflict.

But others say that unless conditions change on the ground, recognition would be useless and serve only to whitewash the status quo, continuing to leave the Israeli state with all the power.

What are the advantages?

Recognition would give a Palestinian state more political, legal and even symbolic power.

In particular, Israeli occupation or annexation of Palestinian territory would become a more serious legal issue.

"[Such a] change would set the ground for permanent status negotiations between Israel and Palestine, not as a set of concessions between the occupier and the occupied, but between two entities that are equal in the eyes of international law," Josh Paul wrote in the Los Angeles Times earlier this year.

Up until recently, Paul was director of congressional and public affairs for the US State Department's Bureau of Political-Military Affairs but resigned over disagreements on US policy on Gaza.

"Disputes, such as over the status of Jerusalem or control over borders, water rights and airwaves, can be settled through established global arbitration mechanisms," he suggested, noting that internationally accepted rules on law, civil aviation or telecommunications could then be used to help work through ongoing disputes.

Possibly the biggest advantage for Palestinians, however, is symbolic. A Palestinian state might eventually take Israel to an international court of some kind, but that would be a long way down the line, said Philip Leech-Ngo, a Middle East analyst based in Canada and author of the 2016 book The State of Palestine: A Critical Analysis.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh speaks during a press conference after several key donor countries halted funding to the UNRWA, Ramallah, West Bank, 28 January 2024
According to Middle East analyst Philip Leech-Ngo, recognition of Palestine is the whole raison d'être for the Palestinian Authority, which governs some of the occupied West Bank and is part of the official representation of the Palestinian people. Pictured here: Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh (image: ZAIN JAAFAR/AFP/Getty Images)

For the Palestinian Authority, which governs some of the occupied West Bank and is part of the official representation of the Palestinian people, "the whole raison d'être is recognition," Leech-Ngo told DW. "They can't offer the Palestinian public much of anything else. They can't confront Israel, they're not capable of improving the lives of Palestinians under their jurisdiction, and they're also corrupt and non-democratic. So the only thing that they can offer is the promise of international recognition."

"After all," Leech-Ngo continued, "recognition as a state would be a way of saying that the international community accepts that the Palestinian cause is legitimate and, in the context of prolonged belligerent occupation by Israel, that offers considerable political capital."

What are the disadvantages?

Recent polls show that most Israelis don't want to see a Palestinian state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been saying as much for years. And for Israelis and their international supporters, there are also fears that if a Palestinian state is recognised now, it might amount to a victory for those advocating violence.

The most recent conflict in Gaza began after 7 October, when the militant Hamas group attacked Israel, killing around 1,200 people. Since then, Israel's ongoing military campaign in the Gaza Strip has caused close to an estimated 36,000 deaths.

If recognition happens now, Hamas "will likely take credit," Jerome Segal, director of the International Peace Consultancy, wrote in Foreign Policy magazine in February. "[Hamas] will maintain that this recognition … demonstrates that only armed struggle produces results."

Israeli soldiers operate a military vehicle amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, near the Israel-Gaza Border, southern Israel, 9 May 2024
"For Israelis […], there are also fears that if a Palestinian state is recognised now, it might amount to a victory for those advocating violence," writes Catherin Schaer. Indeed, Israel's Foreign Minister Israel Katz responded to Norway and Ireland's decision to recognise Palestine by saying they were sending "a message today to the Palestinians and the whole world: terrorism pays" (image: Image: Amir Cohen/REUTERS)

The difference between recognition and a two-state solution

Despite coming with legal and symbolic advantages, recognition of a Palestinian state wouldn't immediately change anything on the ground.

"The greatest obstacles to Palestinian statehood in February 2024 are similar to the greatest obstacles that existed before October 7," Dahlia Scheindlin, a Tel Aviv-based fellow at the US think tank Century International, wrote in February.

"First and foremost, the Israeli political leadership is dedicated to preventing Palestinian independence at all costs. Second, the Palestinian leadership is completely divided and has almost no domestic legitimacy. All these obstacles have grown worse since October 7," she wrote.

"If you were to wave a magic wand and suddenly create recognition of a Palestinian state, there would still be enormous problems on the ground," Middle East analyst Leech-Ngo pointed out. "There's the occupation, there are the [illegal] settlements, the devastation in Gaza and the lack of control over borders as well as the question of who controls Jerusalem. There are numerous final status issues that wouldn't suddenly be resolved – even if you could wave a magic wand," he concluded.

Cathrin Schaer

© Deutsche Welle 2024