It is official. Palestine President Mahmoud Abbas has formally declared he will ask the Security Council to approve full membership of a Palestinian state at the United Nations, a move which is a legitimate right but which will set the stage for a diplomatic confrontation with Israel and the United States.
Abbas will submit his statehood bid on Sept. 23 after addressing the General Assembly. To get full membership at the UN, he must go to the Security Council where the US will undoubtedly veto the measure. If Washington does veto, the Palestinians could then go to the full General Assembly which does not have the power to grant the Palestinians membership, but could recognize it as a nonmember state, a more easily obtainable goal. The Palestinians would only need a simple majority and more than 125 of the assembly's 193 members have pledged to support the Palestinians in their statehood bid.
Both Israel and the United States are firmly opposed to the UN move, arguing that a Palestinian state can only be created through direct negotiations. But the prospect of a veto would put Washington in the embarrassing position of voting against a concept the Obama administration approves of in principle: The establishment of a Palestinian state.
The Palestinians are turning to the UN after concluding that peace talks will yield no breakthrough at this point. Talks between Israel and the Palestinians have been stalled for almost three years. The continued construction on lands the Palestinians need for a future state compromised the negotiations' viability. Settlement construction had to stop completely as a condition for restarting talks but Israel rejected that demand.
Abbas' announcement pretty much closed the door on last-ditch efforts by the Obama administration and other international mediators to come up with a formula to resume Palestinian-Israeli talks and head off the UN bid. So resigned had Obama been about the impending Palestine move at the UN that he was already looking beyond, to ways to revive the stalled negotiations. Obama will meet Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on the sidelines of the UN next week, but whether he can make any progress in convincing Netanyahu to return to talks is highly uncertain, and it's unclear what bargaining power the US has over Israel anyway.
Before looking ahead, Obama should focus on the here and now, specifically next week. His certain veto will not only be viewed as a hypocritical stand but could also inflame Arab opinion at this time of huge upheaval in the Middle East. Abbas has stressed that any popular protests in support of his initiative should be peaceful but there is the possibility the UN showdown could spark violence across the West Bank; anticipating this Israel is putting its forces on high alert in the area.
Meanwhile, Abbas is playing down expectations, that the move would not end the Israeli occupation and has cautioned against outsize hopes.
Although the UN move might not change things on the ground, it will show the world — via the General Assembly — that the weight of global sentiment heavily favors the Palestinians and their cause, which should in turn give the Palestinians greater leverage, should there ever be future negotiations with Israel, by elevating their international profile.