Over the strenuous objections of the U.S. and Israel, the United Nations General Assembly voted today to grant nonmember observer status to a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. The U.N. action, which was widely anticipated, was largely a symbolic move that does nothing to change the situation on the ground or lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. But it does raise international pressure on Israel to show it is serious about reaching a negotiated settlement, while allowing Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to claim a historic advance in his people's quest for global recognition.
Both the U.S. and Israel would have preferred for the issue of Palestinian statehood to have been resolved through direct negotiations between the two parties involved, and they continue to view Mr. Abbas' U.N. effort as an end run around the peace process laid out in the 1991 and 1995 Oslo accords. But Israel now needs to rethink how it will deal with Mr. Abbas' West Bank-based Palestinian Authority in a way that strengthens his position against the rival Hamas-led government in Gaza and avoids a new upsurge in violence between Israelis and Palestinians.
Mr. Abbas has argued that his government needed U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem before he could resume negotiations with Israel, and that the world's recognition of the 1967 lines as the basis for borders of a Palestinian state will rescue a peace process that has been stalled for years. Israel claims that any attempt to define the borders of the new state that doesn't come out of direct talks between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators will be null and void and will doom the peace process.
Mr. Abbas clearly felt the need to be able to show a victory at the U.N. in order to convince West Bank residents that his Palestinian Authority government remained politically relevant after he was cut out of the negotiations that led to cease-fire between Hamas and Israel last week. The outcome of that conflict enabled Hamas to claim, however cynically, that only force could win concessions from Israel and that it had delivered the goods despite its crushing military defeat. Even though it lost the war, it may have actually emerged in a stronger position vis-a-vis the Islamist-led emerging Arab democracies in the region (and Turkey). That fact was part of the reason some American allies in Europe voted for the U.N. resolution.
The U.S. and Israel fear Mr. Abbas will now seek Palestinian membership in the International Criminal Court and use it to press charges against Israel for its military operations in the territories it occupies. The newly recognized Palestinian state could also try to join other specialized U.N. agencies that receive substantial U.S. support, which could lead Congress to cut off funding for those organizations, as it did for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization in 2011 after that body accepted Palestine as a member.
In the past, Israel has threatened to stop turning over the tax revenues it collects in the West Bank that the Palestinian Authority relies on to fund its government. Without those funds, Mr. Abbas' government could quickly collapse. But Israel would also pay a steep price for allowing the West Bank to descend into chaos. It works against Israel's interests to weaken the Palestinian Authority, which at least in principle accepts Israel's right to exist and a two-state solution, while strengthening Hamas, which continues to seek Israel's destruction.
Israel seems aware of this dilemma. In recent weeks it has begun to back off threats of harsh countermeasures against the Palestinian Authority that likely would only further isolate it diplomatically, and officials there say they will wait and see what steps the Palestinian Authority takes next.
Palestinians will never gain real statehood without negotiation, but it's equally true that Israelis will never be able to live in peace until Palestinian demands for their own state are resolved. In that sense, Israel has as much stake in a resumption of serious negotiations as do Palestinians. Despite Mr. Abbas' slippery maneuvering at the U.N., he remains by far a more promising interlocutor than Hamas. If Israel insists the Palestinians must negotiate their statehood, it must be prepared to reciprocate at the bargaining table. Ultimately, what happens there, not at the U.N., will be the test of whether Palestinians and Israelis can live side by side in peace.