Palestinian President Abbas meets with a U.S. congressional delegation earlier this month.(Thaer Ganaim/PPO via Getty Images)

Last week, Daniel L. Byman and Charles King published a fascinating op-ed about “phantom states,” territories that in many ways resemble fully sovereign states—holding elections, fielding armies, claiming autonomy—but that are in fact not internationally recognized, usually disputed, and as a result easy kindling for conflicts among other, actually existing countries. Byman and King identify Taiwan, which is not a U.N. member-state, as the ideal phantom state from the perspective of international diplomacy; for less perfect ones, they prescribe a course of “reform rather than focusing exclusively on seeking statehood.”

A more idiosyncratic example of a phantom state that they cite is, of course, “the Palestinian territories.” Byman, in particular, a professor at Georgetown and director of research at Brookings’ Saban Center for Middle East Policy and the author of the forthcoming A High Price: The Triumphs and Failures of Israeli Counterterrorism, is familiar with the specifics of that phantom state. I spoke to him yesterday—our August schedules prevented a more immediate conversation—about where the Palestinian territories fit into his and King’s rubric and what that means for their statehood drive at the United Nations.

What makes the Palestinian territories different from other phantom states?
The Palestinian Territories to me are unusual because of the incredible degree of international attention they get. No one could say this issue doesn’t get the attention it deserves. And that changes the dynamic.

One thing that is quite different is that Palestinian sovereignty is more political than military when compared to other areas.

Should Gaza and the West Bank be, in effect considered two different phantom states?
Maybe it’s happened—for five years now, they’ve been two states.

In what ways are they very much like the other phantom states?
A lot of the Hamas economy until recently, even today, comes from smuggling, and there’s an illegality to it that is accepted by Israel. So you have some of these things that do apply.

What should this phantom state currently be doing?
There’s more than one answer depending on which you’re talking about—the West Bank or Gaza. In the West Bank, what Salam Fayyad has been doing is important, because it’s institution-building. So if and when there’s statehood, they’ll be ready for it. That’s a huge thing to me. That should be applauded and encouraged. Fayyad has focused on the parts he can focus on.

But there’s a second half, which is political, and it’s an authoritarian state.

Yitzhak Rabin had a line about: Wouldn’t it be great, because they can fight terrorism without an Israeli high court and human rights organizations? It sounds good, but Israel paid the price of exactly that—they had a very bad government that had all these pathologies that really showed up in peacemaking. On the West Bank today, you need Fayyad, but you also want more political accountability.

Given that you prize internal reform over statehood—or at least until there is enough reform that statehood becomes a good idea—what do you make of the Palestinian Authority’s plans to seek some sort of upgrade at the United Nations next month?
Phantom states try to do this—grasp onto any trappings of international legitimacy. What makes the Palestinians unusual is they actually have a shot. If Abkhazia did this, they’d be laughed out of the U.N.

The question is, what happens in October? So you have September. What happens in October?

Israel might have messed this up politically, in that they made this a big deal. They could have said, ‘Oh boy, another anti-Israel resolution passes at the U.N.’ They really kind of made it into a big deal, which changed the politics of it. But in a couple months, I don’t think much will have changed.

The Phantom Menace [NYT]