The real meaning of the Palestinian UN bid

For the first time in years of conflict and failed negotiations, the Palestinians have the initiative. Whatever happens–or, at the last minute, doesn’t happen–at the United Nations, this works in their favor.

An isolated, confused and blustering Israel under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has lost the initiative. PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas has grabbed it. The wind of the Arab revolutionary wave–self-determination, people-power–is in his sails. He has also figured out that not only Netanyahu can stand up to a faltering Obama administration and profit from doing so.

As matters stand at the time of writing, Abbas is taking his case to the Security Council. There, he apparently faces three options: an out-and-out United States veto; American success in preventing a yes vote by a nine-state majority, thereby obviating the need for a veto; or, perhaps most likely, a variety of procedural steps, such as sending the proposal to committee, that delay any sort of vote for weeks or months. One way or another, Palestine will not now be accepted into the UN as a full-fledged member state.

Abbas can stop here, having made his point and further isolated Israel and the US, and vow to try again next year. Conceivably, the delay at the Security Council will produce a new formula to return temporarily to negotiations. Or Abbas can take his case to the General Assembly, where he can command the necessary two-thirds majority to accord Palestine observer-state status. The only question there is whether a fairly large European bloc can persuade him to introduce a number of constraints to the resolution–such as a commitment to negotiate all outstanding issues and not resort to international judicial forums–that ensure the next course of action will be, once again, bilateral Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Having reviewed these options, and not knowing which of them or what combination will actually emerge from this UN session, the more interesting question concerns the actual implications of Abbas’ UN initiative for the real issue at hand: the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations.

The Netanyahu government and the Obama administration apparently fear that, one way or another, the UN proceedings will internationalize the Palestinian issue and, in particular, provide grist for the mill of Arab revolutionaries, thereby somehow integrating the two phenomena. Hence their repeated insistence, echoed by the Quartet, that the only proper path to follow is the bilateral negotiations format mandated by the Oslo accords.

Here the US and Israel neglect at their peril the true meaning of the Palestinian UN initiative: Oslo has run its course; it must be succeeded by a new negotiating paradigm of state-to-state negotiations that focus first and foremost on the relatively "doable" 1967 issues of sovereignty, territory and security. The Oslo-mandated issues whose origins precede 1967–the "narrative" or "existential" deal-breaker issues of holy places and the right of return–will no longer be allowed to hold the entire process hostage. We must indeed avoid internationalizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but not at a cost of returning to unproductive Oslo-based final status negotiations between two partners, Netanyahu and Abbas, neither of whom is capable of compromising to the extent of solving all the issues on the Oslo agenda.

Whether he intended this to happen or not, this is the true import of Abbas’ UN initiative. The sooner Israel and the United States grasp the meaning of this encouraging development, the better for all. The specifics of what actually happens now at the UN pale in importance compared to this new paradigm.