While legislative scholars and political pundits continue to debate the exact meaning of the upgrade of the Palestinians to a nonmember observer state, the United Nations last week officially changed the way it refers to the body: it’s now the “State of Palestine,” as opposed to merely “Palestine.”

The name change is based on an opinion by the UN’s legal department, and might not have any practical implications on the ground, Israeli officials say. But on a symbolic level, the decision will likely boost aspirations of Palestinian leaders who hope their newly gained status will help them establish a full-fledged independent state.

Immediately after the General Assembly vote to upgrade the Palestinians on November 29, UN officials still opposed Palestinian diplomats’ efforts to independently change “Palestine” to “State of Palestine” in the formal name of their permanent observer mission.

And scholars of international law are still arguing whether Palestine can truly be considered a state, since it does not fulfill all criteria that usually determine statehood.

But the UN’s head of protocol, Yeocheol Yoon, last week confirmed that “the designation of ‘State of Palestine’ shall be used by the Secretariat in all official United Nations documents,” according to the Open Zion blog.

The UN’s official list of all permanent missions in New York has since been updated to reflect the name change. It used to refer to the “Permanent Observer Mission of Palestine.” As of Thursday, the so-called Blue Book speaks of the “Permanent Observer Mission of the State of Palestine.”

The head of the Palestinian UN mission, Riyad Mansour, requested the name change on December 12.

Palestinian UN observer Riyad Mansour (photo credit: United Nations Media Center)

Palestinian UN observer Riyad Mansour (photo credit: United Nations Media Center)

“It is gratifying, not only for me personally, but for the Palestinian people, to celebrate as a nation,” Mansour told Open Zion. “It’s not only a change of name, it’s much more than that: now the United Nations is recognizing us as the State of Palestine.”

The Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem had no immediate comment.

“Within the boundaries of the UN, all these moves are perfectly in tune. Of course, all this only holds for the glass tower on 45th Street,” an Israeli official told The Times of Israel, referring to the UN headquarter’s Manhattan location. “In the real world outside the tower, reality is somewhat different.”

When the General Assembly upgraded Palestine’s status to that of a nonmember observer state, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to declare the vote was “meaningless” and “will not change anything on the ground.”

Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Ron Prosor, repeatedly said that he rejects the notion of a General Assembly resolution having the power to declare Palestine a real state. “This resolution will not confer statehood on the Palestinian Authority, which clearly fails to meet the criteria for statehood,” he said on November 29, moments before 138 countries voted in favor of the resolution, with nine objecting and 41 abstaining.

On its website, the United Nations indeed suggests that it has no power to recognize new states, since only other states or governments can do that. “The United Nations is neither a State nor a Government, and therefore does not possess any authority to recognize either a State or a Government,” the statement reads.

A spokesperson for the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process did not respond to repeated requests for clarification of the body’s stance regarding Palestinian statehood.

In the immediate aftermath of the GA vote, UN officials refused to comply with Palestinian requests for a name change. When they saw that the sign on the Palestinian delegation’s bench in the General Assembly Hall that used to say “Palestine” had been replaced with a sign reading “State of Palestine,” they demanded the new sign be replaced with the old one.

As long as Palestine is merely a nonmember state, the officials insisted, it cannot independently ask for its name to be changed on the sign adorning its bench.

But as of last week, all official documents and nameplates at the UN will refer to the “State of Palestine,” according to Open Zion. Also, the UN’s protocol chief has “noted” the “new status” Mansour requested for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas — “Head of State of the State of Palestine.”

Since the Palestinian mission to the UN does not represent the PA but rather the Palestine Liberation Organization — of which Abbas is also the head — the UN recognizes him as president of Palestine, the site reported.

Yet this does not mean that the UN also automatically considers PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad the prime minister of the new state. “The Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority is not exactly the prime minister of the State of Palestine,” Mansour said. This could change, however, were the PLO’s executive committee — “the acting government of the State of Palestine” — to make a decision to that effect.