Such a request would only be necessary in one case: if Israel effectively ends any hope of renewed peace negotiations by continuing to build Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory in the West Bank.
Mr. Obama has good reason to give a quiet wink to such a Palestinian request. He is deeply frustrated that Israel renewed its settlement construction last month. That move forced Palestinians to quit bilateral peace talks. It also caused them to contemplate the prospect that the US is no longer a reliable mediator or able to press Israel to make concessions.
As a last resort, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas says he is considering asking for Obama’s support in seeking recognition by UN bodies of Palestinian sovereignty over the West Bank, Gaza, and east Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Mideast war.
Seeking statehood this way is not ideal. Israel could retaliate by cutting off many vital services to Palestinians, such as trade to the outside world. And there is a possibility that China or Russia, facing calls for independence by groups within their own countries, might veto a Security Council resolution on Palestinian independence.
At the least, however, allowing the issue to be debated in UN bodies may force Israel to end its occupation of Palestinian land.
If the UN declares a state of Palestine, Israeli settlements would then clearly be in violation of international law.
Already, in early October, UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon said that “all settlement activity is illegal anywhere in occupied territory.” US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, meanwhile, recently spoke of her concern for Palestinians because they are living under “the indignity of occupation.”
And Israel indirectly acknowledged that it occupies Palestinian territory by agreeing to a moratium on settlement activity last spring. But right-wing political pressure within the ruling coaltion of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu forced him to lift that moritorium Sept. 26. Israel already treats the Palestinian Authority to some degree as a state by citing binding bilateral pacts.
The state of Israel was created out of a 1947 UN resolution that called for both a Jewish and Arab state in the Holy Land. And the Palestinians long ago unilaterally declared a state of their own, but that wasn’t enough to force Israel to support such a step.
With little chance ahead that Obama has the clout with Israel to achieve a negotiated, two-state solution, he should now take an even-handed approach and let the Palestinians seek help at the United Nations.