Does it matter that the pope has recognised Palestine?

Dawn of a new era? Angelo Carconi/EPA

The announcement that the Holy See is to extend full diplomatic relations to the State of Palestine raises an important question. A few days later, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas attended a ceremony in the Vatican at which two Palestinian women were canonised. But does this matter?

The declaration follows on from Swedish recognition in October 2014. The French and Irish parliaments have passed motions calling for recognition of Palestine.

First, a word about the Holy See. The Catholic Church is the most centralised religion in the world. There are various theological and political reasons for this, and the consequence is that it has an HQ. This has meant that from the fifth century the pope has sent envoys to represent him. This occurred long before the modern system of states that exists today. Thus, to all intents and purposes, the pope can send a receive ambassadors just like a normal country.

It was perhaps unintended that the announcement between the Holy See and Palestine came the day before the anniversary of the United States recognising the State of Israel. However, the context of US-Israeli relations is important, as it has rarely been less cordial.

The speech given by Benjamin Netanyahu before Congress in March did little to improve the relationship between Netanyahu and Barack Obama. After the statement by the Holy See, the United States reiterated its position for a mutually agreed two-state solution. The fact that there was little comment from either the State Department or the White House could be another sign that relations between the two leaders are toxic. John Judis, in Foreign Affairs, argues that the bipartisan support for Israel is beginning to crack. The Holy See’s recognition of Palestine could be another small nail in this bipartisan coffin.

The Holy See has had “relations of a special nature” with the State of Palestine since 1994. This meant that the Holy See effectively recognised Palestine. Now it is official. A year earlier the Holy See and Israel signed the Fundamental Agreement recognising each other. The Holy See has had great difficulty in getting Israel to implement it in its totality. Since the Israeli-Palestinian conflict broke out, the Holy See has consistently urged for a peaceful agreement and an end to the conflict.

Pope Francis meets Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas. Alberto Pizzoli/EPA

The circumspect Holy See diplomacy took a dramatic turn, when in a classic media-friendly gesture, Pope Francis prayed with both leaders in the Vatican City in June 2014. Holy See recognition of Palestine may be part of a long-held hope to encourage Israel to the negotiating table. As for US-Holy See relations it is hard to imagine a fundamental reordering of their relationship resulting from this action.

For Israel, another sovereign actor recognising Palestine will not be welcome. In the short term it will certainly hurt Israel-Holy See relations. However, if Israel were to withdraw its ambassador to the Holy See over the incident, it would have done so by now. A statement from the foreign ministry said it was “disappointed” by the move.

Undoubtedly Palestine has gained much with this move. It has added yet another state to the growing list of nations that accept it as full member of the international community. Given the equivalence between the Church and the Holy See it could be seen as a moral victory for the Palestinians. At the same time it could embolden other nations to do follow suit.