The debate over the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s imminent application for full recognition at the United Nations continues to rage domestically and internationally. The dominant perspective here in the U.S., at least among Republicans, is that Palestinian statehood should be denied except on Israel’s terms. The most common reason given seems to be that the Israelis are more trustworthy and just better people than the Palestinians. For instance, this Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial argues that the Palestinians are full of hatred for Israel, disqualifying them from their own state. (It also wrongly asserts that the PLO has not recognized Israel’s right to exist. The PLO has not recognized Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.)
Should Palestine’s recognition depend on the virtue or justice of its people? Certainly, other governments should not reward terrorism or human rights violations by offering statehood to groups of people who use such means to control territory and establish a government. Recognizing the PLO in the 1970’s would have been gravely mistaken. But the internal mental state of Palestinians – the extent of their hostility toward Israel or the United States – should not matter at all. When considering how to use the recognition power, governments ought to place first and foremost the promotion of peace and stability. A secessionist movement does not have to be virtuous and high-minded to be recognized as a state. There have been many dubious aspects about secession movements in Croatia, Bosnia, Kosovo, Eritrea, Bangladesh, and South Sudan, but that hasn’t prevented the United States and other powers from recognizing these countries in order to establish stability and prevent further killing.
When considering whether to recognize Palestine as a fully independent state, governments should tough-mindedly consider the consequences of doing so for long-term peace and stability. As I argue in my forthcoming book, Secessionism, providing a legal path for secession does not require celebrating the motivations or consequences of secession, but “legalizing secession” does reduce the risk of major violence. Basing the recognition decision on the relative moral desert of the Israelis and Palestinians as peoples – if such a comparison between groups of peoples can even be made – is a distraction.