The Pope and the Holy Land
Vatican Recognizes State of Palestine

The Holy See has formally recognized Palestine as a state in a new treaty, the AP reports:

The treaty, which concerns the activities of the Catholic Church in Palestinian territory, makes clear that the Holy See has switched its diplomatic recognition from the Palestine Liberation Organization to the state of Palestine.

The Vatican had welcomed the decision by the U.N. General Assembly in 2012 to recognize a Palestinian state. But the treaty is the first legal document negotiated between the Holy See and the Palestinian state and constitutes official diplomatic recognition.

“Yes, it’s a recognition that the state exists,” said the Vatican spokesman, the Rev. Federico Lombardi.

The Israelis are, predictably, not happy. Diplomatic recognition is a valuable bargaining chip in the Middle East, where few of Israel’s neighbors recognize its right to exist, and conversely, Palestine is not widely considered to be a state yet. In recent years, Palestinian activists both in and out of the region have pushed for widespread recognition as a way to work around what they see as a stalled peace process. But Israel and its supporters argue that preemptively giving Palestine statehood is bad idea until Palestine has the institutional capacities of a state, particularly the ability to control who within the borders of that state launches violent attacks its neighbors.

Vatican diplomacy, for its part, is complex. Pope Francis has recently come out more strongly than the perceived right-wing Benedict ever did against ISIS and Islamic extremism. This move balances the Holy Father’s tough rhetoric against Islamists killing Christians with a step aimed at conciliating Muslim opinion. And the Pope also has to look after his flock: Palestinian Christians have long played an outsized role in Palestinian nationalism (as they have in other Arab nationalisms) as a way of winning acceptance in their community on a non-religious basis. In the birthplace of Christ, native Christians still have sway, but in the region they are increasingly under attack (as Walter Russell Mead and Cardinal Dolan recently highlighted at a joint Hudson Institute appearance). This gesture may, the Vatican feels, help protect a vulnerable part of the flock by bolstering the communal legitimacy of Palestinian Christians.
On the other hand, for all the tactical considerations, this marks a remarkable change in perceived moral superiority within a fairly short period of time—time during which Palestinian tactics have if anything become more brutal and flailing. Both the background of Francis personally and the milieu of intellectual Europe that many Cardinals marinate in now militate in favor of the Palestinian cause, when a generation ago the international left was broadly pro-Israeli.
This move, all told, though it will certainly annoy Israel, will likely not represent a huge change in the global status quo. It is, however, a sign of the times.
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