Yesterday the United Nations voted overwhelmingly in favor of changing the status of Palestine from non-member entity to non-member state. The State of Palestine shares this status with only one other state, The Holy See (which holds sovereignty over Vatican City). Prior to yesterday it shared the status of “non-member entity” with only one other entity, the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (a non-territorial religious order). Leaving the politics of the vote aside, this change raises the question– what makes an entity a state?
Most definitions of the state include three main criteria: a centralized bureaucratic apparatus, a monopoly over legitimate use of violence, and control over territory and borders. In addition to this, most states today are nation-states, meaning the state represents a “people” with a shared history, a claim to a particular territory and a right to self-determination. It seems that Palestine has some of these things: centralized bureaucratic apparatus and a defined nation with a history. But Israel fulfills the other functions of the state within the territory claimed by Palestine.
The Holy See meets all the criteria of a state (possibly a nation-state if you don’t consider nationality to be exclusive)– though if there were a size requirement I am sure they wouldn’t make the cut with a population of about 800. The Sovereign Military Order of Malta has a centralized bureaucracy and a military but without territory it is kind of meaningless in terms of statehood, therefore it remains an entity. It seems to me that Palestine has less in common with those it shares a status with and much more in common with another case–the Republic of China, AKA Taiwan.
The Republic of China (officially established in 1912) meets all the theoretical requirements of statehood. They have a governing structure and military independent of mainland China and control their own borders. Yet, they are not members or non-members of the United Nations. Much like Palestine, their lack of status is for largely political reasons. The People’s Republic of China was established on mainland China in 1949 causing the Republic of China (ROC) to relocate to Taiwan. Despite the ROC’s fundamental role in the founding of the United Nations, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) took control of “China’s” seat at the United Nations in 1971. Both claim sovereignty over all of China, though for all practical purposes they are only sovereign over their respective territories. Despite being a full member of the UN from 1945-1971 the ROC, Taiwan, has been denied membership every year from 1993-2008 mostly out of respect for the “one China” policy.
Beyond the substantive requirements of statehood listed above there is a very important cultural factor, to be a state other states have to agree. Only 23 states maintain diplomatic relations with Taiwan (the Holy See is the only European state). Compare this to 131 (out of 193) UN member states that recognize Palestine. Again, it is mostly non-Western but there are a handful of EU states. By comparison, 161 states recognize the State of Israel. The 32 states that don’t recognize Israel are mostly non-European (the majority are predominantly Muslim states).
Like with so much else in life, it seems that who you know matters more than whether or not you can check all the necessary theoretical boxes. Taiwan doesn’t have the friends it needs to be recognized as a state even though it has checked all the right boxes. Palestine has enough friends to gain recognition and there is little question that with the right support Palestine could meet the theoretical definition of the state, in fact that is what the two-state solution is all about. But the most popular kids on the world stage are more than a little hesitant to allow Palestinians a monopoly over the legitimate use of violence within their territory or the authority to control their own borders. So, be they a state or an entity, it is likely that little will change structurally for the collection of institutions known as Palestine.