Toward the end of last month the Roman Catholic Church signed an agreement with the Palestinian Authority recognizing a Palestinian State and calling for a “two state” solution to the Arab-Israeli imbroglio, an act the State of Israel characterized as “unfortunate”.
The deal was designed ostensibly to protect the rights of Palestinian Christians, who have mostly had their homes seized in Bethlehem by Muslims and forced to pay the al-jizya tax, and after Israel changed its policy to give in Israeli Christians non Arab status.
Vatican recognition of a Palestinian state followed on the heels of Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudatum Si, putting the Church on record as endorsing the idea that there is climate change, that climate change is human caused by human beings, and that capitalism globally must change in fundamental ways in order to control or reverse the process.
Taken together, the two moves by the Vatican appear to indicate a much closer relationship developing between the Vatican and the United Nations Organization. Perhaps this shift toward the UN is designed to put a coda to 70 years of close relationships between the United States and the Roman pontiff, which began with the campaign to prevent Italy from voting in a Communist government in 1948.
Both actions arguably mark a new independence from United States. But, just as significantly, both causes turn out to be in the vital interests of the UN Organization.
The scientific consensus view on that the Vatican has endorsed originates from research carried out under the auspices of the UN Framework on Climate Change starting in the 1990s, which established its Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. The plight of Palestinian refugees has been a preoccupation of the UN since the formation of the State of Israel in 1948.
We do not use the term “preoccupation” lightly. The United Nation’s total budget for 2015 is $5.4 billion, of which $1.4 billion is allocated to UN Relief Works Agency (UNRWA). The UNRWA administers refugee camps and, even more controversially, refuses to resettle Palestinians elsewhere in the world (as it does for all other displaced peoples who are cared for by the UN High Commission on Refugees), while holding three generations in limbo under often difficult living conditions at UN donor expense.
Overall the UN has a payroll of 41,426 personnel, who work directly for the United Nations Secretariat with 125,396 serving in peacekeeping operations. The UNRWA itself has over 30,000 on the payroll, a large number of them Palestinians. With 30,000 UN employees engaged in caring for over 5 million refugees and descendants of refugees, this arrangement makes Palestinians probably the largest single group of stakeholders in the entire UN enterprise.
Such a statistic gives the UN as an organization an incentive for pushing the Palestinian narrative of a people denied the right to self-determination and illegally occupied by the State of Israel. But what if that narrative is losing force even among Palestinians?
There is a great deal of evidence available that Palestinian solidarity in favor of the UN prescribed “two state solution” may be more perceived than real.
George Deek, Israel’s Vice-Ambassador to Norway, is an Israeli Christian Arab from Jaffa. He represents a segment of the Israeli Arab population that speaks Hebrew fluently and is quite comfortable with being Israeli–a lot more comfortable than it would be as citizens of a Palestinian state under the Palestinian Authority (or Hamas, or even the Islamic State).
His preference for Israel over the Palestinian Authority apparently extends to Arabs living in East Jerusalem, many of whom are the Christian Arabs whom the Pope wants the Palestinian Authority to protect, and who have recently been applying for (and receiving) Israeli citizenship in large numbers. This trend is all the more remarkable because Arabs who step forward in this direction face reprisal from both the Palestinian Authority and Hamas militants.
Even more significantly, there is evidence that the demographic threat from Arabs that has been touted as a reason why there is no alternative to a “two state solution” may be overblown.
Analysis of most recent census data suggests that the Jewish birthrate remains at an average of 3.0 children higher than any other advanced nation,. Meanwhile, the Arab birthrate has fallen to equivalent levels and that Palestinian population may well have been over-counted, raising the possibility that Israel could easily absorb the Palestinians of the West Bank as voting citizens,, even without the current surge in Jewish immigration from Europe.
These “facts on the ground” dispute the more familiar Palestinian narrative, if not upend it altogether. And they raise doubts about what “self-determination” is anyway. Most nations established after World War II were not given any choice about whether or not their people wanted to be independent states.
The “mother countries” simply pulled out of former colonies either in response to postwar pressure from the United States or a desire to practice “grand apartheid” by creating national barriers to keep out residents of former colonies, as the UK did in the West Indies.
Few of these states have been democratic except in form. Most are ruled by oligarchies and almost all are open to the “indirect imperialism” the United States pioneered in Latin America, which is exacerbated by financialization and fosters the very system of “dependency” that Pope Francis condemns in Laudatum Si.
Ironically, the Pope seems to be subtly promoting this system of dependency in lobbying for a Palestinian state, which the majority of its inhabitants may not want, especially in light of the very real threat from a different “state’,” the Islamic State or IS.
It may be the growing strength of ISIS that lurks behind the “now or never” urgency on the part of the UN and those like-minded nations to a bring a Palestinian state into being. Already, in Syria, the Al Yarmouk Refugee Camp in Damascus has been largely emptied of Palestinian refugees by ISIS and Al Nusra. The camp was taken largely by Al-Nusra and ISIS fighters, and as of April 2015, only 18000 Palestinians out of a previous population of 137000 were living there.
There is no indication of how many Palestinians may have joined ISIS and Al Nusra (which probably means giving up Palestinian identity to be part of the ISIS umma, or “community”) and how many may have become refugees either in Syria or by escaping abroad to Jordan or Turkey.
But one thing is certain. The UNRWA no longer has access to them, and what has happened to Al Yarmouk can happen to all similar camps east of the Jordan River and north of the Litani.
It would be ironic in the extreme if ISIS, by seizing the Palestinian camps in Syria, Jordan (where has a growing following) and Lebanon, and by incorporating those Palestinians into their society and foreclosing UN access to them, would accomplish what the rest of the World has steadfastly refused to do, i.e., end the refugee status of Palestinians outside of Palestine.
But none of these developments can fully explain why the Vatican has chosen to recognize a Palestinian state that does not control most of the territory it purports to claim, may not hold the allegiance of most of the people it purports to represent, and has held out against three different peace agreements unless it gains an unprecedented “right of return” for the descendants of refugees to Israel proper, who are increasingly hostile to Christians as well as Jews.
Is the Vatican simply supporting the United Nations as the confluence between the recognition of Palestine and Laudatum Si might argue? Or is the Vatican starting to revert to its long held position against the recognition of Israel on the grounds that the latter was a secular state and therefore not Biblical Israel, a position that the Papacy did not abandon until 1993, arguably at the height of US influence?
We await the Vatican’s explanation , if that explanation ever comes.
Martin Katchen is an independent scholar, teacher, and researcher living in Los Angeles. He specializes in Middle Eastern affairs, particularly the state of Israel. He holds a PhD from the University of Sydney (Australia).