On Wednesday, the Vatican finalized a treaty that made clear that the Holy See officially recognizes the state of Palestine rather than the Palestine Liberation Organization, the institution that represents Palestinians overseas in countries that don't recognize a distinct Palestinian state.
According to the Associated Press, the process of negotiations over the treaty had initially begun with the PLO, but the switch in designation now constitutes an official recognition of the Palestinian state. The treaty's ratification is expected to be a formality.
"Yes, it’s a recognition that the state exists," said the Rev. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesman.
The move should not be too great a surprise. Since the U.N. General Assembly voted to recognize Palestine as a "non-member observer state" in 2012, the Vatican has referred to the "state of Palestine" in its communiques. When Pope Francis visited the Holy Land last year, the official Vatican program referred to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as the leader of the "state of Palestine." And the pontiff publicly referred to the "state of Palestine" at a speech in the West Bank.
In another predictable move, the Israeli Foreign Ministry issued a statement saying that it was "disappointed" by the Vatican's decision and that the move "distances the Palestinian leadership from returning to direct and bilateral negotiations" with the Israelis over the long-stalled peace process.
This is a view probably not held by officials within the Vatican, nor in many governments elsewhere in Europe, which in the past year has seen a steady succession of parliamentary votes either confirming formal or symbolic recognition of a Palestinian state.
As WorldViews has discussed, this is the product of increasing frustrations with the right-wing government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which critics say has actively undermined the prospects of a two-state solution. The vast majority of states in Asia, Africa and Latin America already recognize Palestine.
Some prominent parties within Netanyahu's ruling coalition reject outright the prospect of a separate Palestinian state, one whose creation has been a stated policy goal for a succession of U.S. presidents.
The Vatican's recognition of Palestine does little to change the facts on the ground — which include the steady expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the collapse of talks between the Netanyahu and Abbas camps. But it does deepen the sense that Israel is growing increasingly isolated on the world stage.
The Catholic Church, it should be noted, has something of an awkward relationship with the Israeli state. The Vatican formally recognized only Israel in 1993, after the signing of the Oslo Accords. Many still resent how the Vatican under Pope Pius XII was a "silent bystander" in World War II as the Nazis set about systematically slaughtering Jews and other undesirable minorities.
The status of Jerusalem, Israel's declared capital since 1967, is also a matter of contention. In the past, the Holy See wanted the city run under an international mandate so the church could exert more direct influence over its sacred sites.
As my colleagues William Booth and Ruth Eglash noted last year when Francis toured the holy sites, the pontiff took pains to balance his meetings with Israelis and Palestinians, and called on both sides to find an accord through dialogue.
"For the good of all, there is a need to intensify efforts and initiatives aimed at creating the conditions for a stable peace based on justice, on the recognition of the rights of every individual, and on mutual security," Francis said.
A few weeks later, he hosted a "prayer summit" with Abbas and Israeli President Shimon Peres.
"Peacemaking calls for courage, much more so than warfare," Francis said at the time. "Instill in our hearts the courage to take concrete steps to achieve peace."
A month later, the Israeli military and Hamas militants engaged in the brutal 50-day Gaza war, which led to thousands of deaths and marked a new, bitter blow to the prospects of a lasting, peaceful settlement.
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