One unfortunate consequence of widespread public fascination with Pope Francis is that many people are paying attention to a pontiff for the first time, and thus they tend to assume that everything that happens on his watch must be a novelty.
Such is the case Wednesday with a new agreement between the Vatican and the Palestinians, which is being alternately hailed or condemned, depending on one’s point of view, as a breakthrough recognition of Palestinian sovereignty because a brief Vatican statement employed the phrase “State of Palestine.”
In truth, the agreement is nothing of the sort.
The Vatican has been using the phrase “State of Palestine” in its official diplomatic verbiage since November 2012, when the General Assembly of the United Nations voted to admit the Palestinians as a non-member observer state. The Vatican has always supported Palestinian statehood, and took the position that it would follow the lead of the UN as to when to start referring to it as a fact.
It should be noted that the UN vote came during the papacy of Benedict XVI, meaning that recognition of Palestine as a state is not a new Vatican policy under Francis.
When the Vatican issued a news release in 2013 announcing the onset of negotiations with the Palestinians towards the agreement that’s now been finalized, it said the talks would be conducted with “representatives of the Foreign Ministry of the State of Palestine.”
The “news” reported Wednesday, therefore, is two and a half years old.
When the Vatican spokesperson, the Rev. Federico Lombardi, confirmed to reporters on Wednesday that the language used in the statement is “a recognition that the state exists,” he understood himself to be repeating an already established point.
Since the onset of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the Vatican has favored a two-state solution, with security guarantees for Israel and self-determination for the Palestinians. It also backs a special status for Jerusalem, including protection for the holy sites sacred to the three monotheistic faiths – Judaism, Islam and Christianity.
The agreement announced Wednesday isn’t about the question of statehood.
Instead, it largely concerns the tax and legal status of Catholic facilities and personnel on the West Bank and Gaza Strip, building on a basic accord reached between the Vatican and the Palestinian Liberation Organization in 2000.
To be sure, it’s not wrong to see Pope Francis as a supporter of the Palestinian push for sovereignty.
When Francis visited the West Bank in May 2014, the image of him paused in silent prayer before the controversial Israeli security barrier, underneath a patch of graffiti reading “Free Palestine!”, became an instant Palestinian icon.
There’s nothing new about that position, however.
When Pope Benedict XVI travelled to the Middle East in 2009, he pledged support for Palestinian statehood. St. John Paul II made similar statements many times, and was sufficiently fond of former PLO leader Yasser Arafat that he had a set of the Stations of the Cross made out of ivory, presented to him by Arafat as a gift, installed in a small chapel off a Vatican chamber where bishops from around the world gather in a meeting called a “synod.”
The agreement announced Wednesday further cements the relationship between the Vatican and the Palestinians, and certainly Vatican diplomats are not so naïve as to fail to recognize the political relevance of using the phrase “State of Palestinian” in an official communiqué.
However, to style that phrase as another diplomatic innovation under this maverick pontiff is excessive. At most, it’s a confirmation that the Vatican under Francis is not backing away from a position it had already taken.
Perhaps the Vatican’s communication team might want to consider a boilerplate disclaimer in the future. “Caution: Not everything contained in the following statement amounts to a revolution.”