Israel and the Palestinians are on a collision course this week, as the government of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas prepares to unilaterally seek United Nations recognition of an independent Palestinian state. If Mr. Abbas goes through with his plan, it would force the U.S. to use its veto on the Security Council to block the proposal, which it has promised to do — but which would also leave it in a far weaker position to influence events in the region. U.S. officials are desperately hoping to avoid such an outcome, but at this point the best they may be able to do is limit the damage.
The Palestinian decision to seek statehood at the U.N. is obviously being driven by frustration over the on-again, off-again peace process that has seen negotiations with Israel repeatedly break down over the issue of Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, among other disputes. Mr. Abbas has said he won't resume direct talks with Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu unless there is a total freeze on new settlements. Mr. Netanyahu has rejected that precondition out of hand.
Neither side is without blame: The Palestinians waited until a partial settlement freeze had almost expired before briefly returning to the table in 2010. Mr. Netanyahu could have extended the partial freeze temporarily in order to let those efforts gain momentum, but under pressure from right-wing coalition members he chose not to, leading to the talks' collapse. And that essentially is where things have stood ever since.
The Obama administration has been pressing both sides to renew the talks broken off last year as a way to head off a confrontation at the U.N., which it sees as both counterproductive in terms of the peace process and inimical to America's larger policy goals in the region. The pro-democracy movements that have taken root during the Arab Spring in Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and other countries are rapidly changing the political landscape of the Middle East, and over the long term they are bound to affect Israel's relations with its neighbors at least as profoundly as its dispute with the Palestinians. Now is the time for Israeli and Palestinian leaders to recognize that their best hope lies in negotiating a two-state solution in which their people can live side by side in peace.
The U.S. has long supported a two-state solution that uses the 1967 armistice lines as a starting point for negotiations to guarantee both Israel and a future Palestine security and mutual recognition. A U.N. vote this week won't accomplish that because, after the celebrations end, things at best will still be pretty much the same as before — and possibly worse if on the Palestinian side the combination of euphoria over a symbolic victory and growing disappointment with its practical result leads to a third intifada.
The U.S. should honor its promise to veto any effort in the U.N. to unilaterally recognize an independent Palestinian state and thereby short-circuit a negotiated peace, which is the only path to long-term stability in the region. Doing so, however, will inevitably further isolate the U.S. and Israel diplomatically, and ultimately it also will set back the Palestinian cause, because such a move will weaken America's influence in the Arab world and erode its ability to act as honest broker in any future talks. It's a dilemma indicative of the history of intransigence, missed opportunities and self-inflicted wounds that have characterized both sides in this seemingly intractable conflict. Yet it's a chance Israel and the Palestinians still seem willing to take as the price for not coming up with a deal they both can live with.