Somalia, Palestine, and France: Ghost Countries for Ghost Countries

Under international law, states need three things in order to be recognized as such by other states: a population, a territory, and a government.

What really counts as an emerging Palestinian state’s population is unclear: is it just the residents of the West Bank and Gaza, or does it also include the Arab citizens or residents of Israel, as well as the Arab Palestinian refugees of 1948 wherever they may be and their ever-expanding patrilinear descent, even if they are citizens of other Arab or non-Arab countries?

If one is to retain the first, most restrictive definition -- residents of the West and Gaza -- the Palestinian state population would amount to about 4 million people. If one is to include all putative Palestinians all over the world, it would amount to about 11 million people, and this is actually the figure put forward by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics (PCBS), a branch of the Palestinian Authority (PA). In order to get such a number, the PCBS brazenly goes so far as to claim 500,000 citizens of Chile, a South American country, as Palestinians. Such elastic demographics do not fit with statehood recognition prerequisites.

What counts as Palestinian state territory is equally unclear: is it the various places deemed to be under Palestinian Authority control according to the Oslo accords; or those parts of the former Mandatory Palestine held by non-Palestinian Arab states between 1948 and 1967, as many Western countries tend to say nowadays, along with PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas; or Mandatory Palestine as a whole (including what is now Israel), as it is displayed on Palestinian emblems and maps, and routinely referred to in PA literature? Again, such uncertainty does not meet recognization prerequisites.

But the main issue against recognition is government. There are at least two aspiring Palestinian governments today: the Fatah-dominated government in Ramallah, which controls the West Bank, and the Hamas-dominated government in Gaza. Which means that there is none. Or alternatively, that there are two geographically separate Palestinian states in the making -- an interesting outcome.

Neither the Ramallah government nor the Gaza government is legitimate, even by the highly flawed criteria of PA law: the first one was appointed by Mahmoud Abbas, whose term as PA president has been over since January 9, 2009; the second one took over the Gaza Strip in a violent coup in 2007. Any credit the Ramallah government enjoys on international scenes derives in the first place from the formal and informal ties that Israel, for good or bad reasons, is willing to keep with it.

There is even a third Palestinian government to be considered: the Palestine Liberation Organization, which issued a Unilateral Declaration of Independence in Algiers in 1988. The PLO was subsequently granted diplomatic recognition as the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people by most Communist and Third World countries and even a growing number of Western countries. Throughout the current debates about a Palestinian state’s accession to the UN and UNESCO, the fact that the PLO already sits at observer’s level at the UN and at most international organizations and that its president is Abbas himself has been routinely ignored.

The current PLO/PA duality, as well as a prospective PLO/Palestinian state duality, is part and parcel of the Palestinian strategies: it means that whatever the PA or a state of Palestine may agree is not to be binding on the Palestinian national movement as embodied by the PLO. This is reminiscent of the classic Communist distinction between the Soviet state, which may engage in treaties with the bourgeois states, and the Communist International, which may ignore them.

No defined population or territory, no undisputed national government: Palestine (whatever it means) cannot be deemed a state under present circumstances and accordingly cannot be admitted as a member-state by international organizations.

The U.S., thanks to Congressional legislation, stuck to such basics at the UNESCO October 31 vote. Only 16 other UNESCO members made a similar decision. Fifty-three abstained, however: they entertained no illusion about the admission of Palestine, but were not bold enough to state it explicitly. One hundred and seven countries supported admission. Including Somalia. And Libya, which is hardly in better shape than Somalia nowadays. And France, which may no longer be as strong as a state and a country as it used to be.

Pundits at and around Quai d’Orsay (the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs) claim that since France is poised to abstain in the UN vote on Palestine, something Arab and Islamic countries resent enormously, it had to appear more "positive" at the UNESCO vote. My feeling: France’s vote has less to do with Arab and Islamic countries than with the domestic Arab and Islamic community.

Remember: 2012 is an election year, and Sarkozy is not exactly popular. French citizens of Arab descent or of the Islamic persuasion (5% of the vote so far, according to various estimates) will have a say. For the time being, 16% of them only say they may cast their ballot for the incumbent. Moreover, unrest among the Arab and Islamic community at large -- this includes foreign legal and illegal residents and may amount to 10% of the global population at least -- can turn overnight into a major crisis. On November 2, the satiric paper Charlie Hebdo published Sharia Hebdo, a special issue on Islamic fanaticism.

Its offices were torched the same night, a warning of some sort.