This morning, the Associated Press broke what appeared to be a big story: The Vatican had just officially recognized the state of Palestine. The news was first shared by the agency on Twitter:
BREAKING: Vatican officially recognizes `state of Palestine’ in new treaty.
— The Associated Press (@AP) May 13, 2015
Other outlets quickly picked up the AP’s story or hammered out their own version. Vox’s “Pope Francis just officially recognized Palestine as a state” offers a representative headline. Soon, the move was being alternatively celebrated and condemned by anti-Israel activists, the Anti-Defamation League, and even members of Congress.
But there was just one small problem with the news driving the whole hullabaloo: the Vatican had actually recognized Palestine in 2012, after it declared statehood at the United Nations. This fact, which is evident from a cursory search of the Vatican’s official news service, was quickly noted by several experts in Palestinian politics. Others observed that during his trip last May to Israel and Palestine, Pope Francis had explicitly heralded the “good relations existing between the Holy See and the State of Palestine.” As Ramallah-based journalist and former Al Jazeera producer Dalia Hatuqa put it: “For years, Vatican has referred to it as State of Palestine. Nothing new here.”
The new treaty reported by the AP between the Vatican and “the state of Palestine,” in other words, was simply the first accord signed by the two parties since that original official recognition. Sure enough, when more discerning reporters tried to follow up on the AP’s big scoop, the Vatican and Palestinian Authority promptly denied that anything new had transpired, and pointed out that the official Vatican recognition had already been conferred years prior. As Reuters reports:
“We have recognized the State of Palestine ever since it was given recognition by the United Nations and it is already listed as the State of Palestine in our official yearbook,” Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said.
On November 29, 2012 the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution recognizing Palestine as an observer non-member state. This was welcomed at the time by the Vatican, which has the same observer non-member status at the UN.
During a three-day visit to the Middle East a year ago, Pope Francis delighted his Palestinian hosts by referring to the “state of Palestine”, giving support for their bid for full statehood recognition.
Washington Post foreign correspondent William Booth received the same response from the Palestinian side:
Palestinian Authority and PLO Spox tell me Vatican recognized state of palestine back in 2012. So nothing new? Or am I missing something? — William Booth (@BoothWilliam) May 13, 2015
So, if the Vatican didn’t just officially recognize Palestine, but instead did so years ago, what actually happened here?
Simply put, the AP got the story wrong and caused a cascade of similarly sloppy coverage before other outlets had a chance to follow up. Given the AP’s centrality in international reporting, this chain reaction is not surprising. As former AP Jerusalem editor Matti Friedman noted last November in The Atlantic:
This is not just because many thousands of media outlets use AP material directly, but also because when journalists arrive in their offices in the morning, the first thing many of them do is check the AP wire (or, these days, scroll through it in their Twitter feed). The AP is like Ringo Starr, thumping away at the back of the stage: there might be flashier performers in front, and you might not always notice him, but when Ringo’s off, everyone’s off.
The real story here, then, is not that the Vatican just officially recognized Palestine. It’s that the Vatican has been talking about the state of Palestine for years—and certain media outlets just noticed today.
Admittedly, “Vatican signs first treaty with the state of Palestine, which it recognized in 2012” doesn’t have the same ring to it as “Vatican recognizes Palestine,” and it might not drive the same amount of internet outrage. But it does have the advantage of being true.