After months of anticipation and hype, weeks of intense diplomacy, and days of high drama and political grandstanding at the United Nations (UN), the Palestinian bid for statehood—more precisely, UN membership—has been a bit of an anti-climax. Nothing has really happened, not at the UN and not in Palestine. The Palestinian application for membership is now being reviewed by a committee made up of Security Council members, and it is unlikely that it will be put to a vote in the Security Council any time soon, if indeed there is even enough support within the Security Council for such a vote. Of course, if and when a vote does take place, the outcome is clear since the Obama Administration has promised to veto the Palestinian bid. Palestine will not become the 194th member of the UN. At most, the General Assembly will vote to upgrade the status of the PLO to nonmember observer state. This might allow the Palestinians to join a variety of international organizations, potentially including the International Criminal Court—the prospect of which is particularly worrying for Israel.
So far, then, the “trainwreck” or “diplomatic tsunami” (choose your metaphor) that many feared has not come to pass. Instead, as if last week’s UN drama never happened, it seems that the situation (Hamatzav, as Israelis call it) is much the same. The Netanyahu government continues to profess its willingness to make peace with the Palestinians, while doing nothing to promote this and much to prevent it by announcing more settlement construction in Jerusalem (in the southeast Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo). The Abbas government continues to refuse to negotiate unless Israel freezes all settlement construction and commits to the pre-1967 boundary as the basis for negotiations over the future border between Israel and Palestine. The Obama Administration, meanwhile, continues to express tepid criticism of Israeli settlement construction and issues vain calls for a resumption of direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations—negotiations that no-one really believes will actually result in a peace agreement.
Although this resumption of the status quo may please Netanyahu and his right-wing supporters in Israel and the United States, it will ultimately prove to be far more damaging to Israel and the United States than any UN vote could be. The Palestinians’ UN gambit was a desperate attempt by President Abbas to elevate the Palestinian issue on the international agenda, to bring greater international pressure to bear on Israel, and to boost his own flagging domestic popularity and credibility. While it has temporarily succeeded in doing the latter, it has not changed the basic dynamics of the conflict—pitting a divided and occupied Palestine against a dominant Israel backed by the United States (to be sure, those who hoped that going to the UN would be a game-changer were always overestimating the significance of an organization long derided as a “talking shop”). Once the Palestinians come to the realization that their UN bid has not changed the status quo in the way they hoped, they will then have to decide what options they have left. Perhaps the one option that they have available to them which is certain to change the status quo is to dissolve the Palestinian Authority (PA) altogether—something that Abbas hinted at in his speech to the UN. By pressing the self-destruct button, the PA will make Israel take over full responsibility for the West Bank and Gaza Strip and the approximately 4.2 million Palestinians who live in these territories. Israel will be forced into directly ruling over the Palestinians, as it did before the Oslo Accords established Palestinian self-governance in the early 1990s. This would be a nightmare for Israel and a major headache for the United States.
Thus, if their UN gambit fails, the Palestinians could well resort to even more desperate measures. If the choice is between Palestinian membership in the UN or the end of the PA, Israel would surely choose the former. One day it may wish it had.