Palestinian leader sets his course: full UN membership. Can US avoid a veto?

President Abbas has chosen a path Palestinians know cannot succeed, but it brings their cause maximum exposure at the UN next week and would force the US to use its Security Council veto.

Darren Whiteside/Reuters
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks about his bid for Palestinian statehood recognition at the United Nations next week, during a televised speech in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Friday, Sept. 16.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas announced Friday that he will seek full UN membership for Palestine through the Security Council next week – setting the stage for a confrontation with Israel and a potentially image-damaging veto by the United States.

The decision means the Palestinians are going for an option at the United Nations that they know cannot succeed, but which will nevertheless put the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on center stage at the opening next week of the UN General Assembly.

International efforts to dissuade Mr. Abbas from what is now his stated path of action at the UN are expected to continue up to the Palestinian leader’s speech to the General Assembly next Friday, but chances of putting off the move dimmed considerably with the announcement.

Palestinian leaders have said for weeks that Abbas was almost certain to seek some form of action at the UN in light of “frustration” over the stalled peace talks and the utter lack of progress in direct negotiations with Israel that President Obama relaunched with great fanfare a year ago.

Some Palestinian leaders had suggested that Abbas might ultimately opt for a less confrontational “observer” UN status through a vote of the General Assembly. The Palestinians might eventually take that route, some UN experts point out, if as expected a bid for full membership is blocked by a US veto in the Security Council.

In any case, no dramatic immediate Security Council showdown is anticipated next week, since Abbas is expected to make his request for membership on Sept. 23, Friday, with the Security Council likely to take several weeks to review the request before taking a vote.

At that time the Palestinians could then opt for a sort of “Plan B” of recognition through the General Assembly as a nonmember observer state. An affirmative vote in the General Assembly is virtually assured, since more than 125 countries have already recognized Palestine as a state.

Abbas’s decision assures that the Palestinian issue will dominate the UN at a time when Obama, among other Western leaders, had been hoping to highlight Libya in particular and dramatic events across the Arab world over the last year more generally.

But the decision is unlikely to do anything to bring the Middle East crisis any closer to resolution.

“This does nothing productive for the Palestinians,” says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. “Yet they are in a position now where it is very hard to step down.”

A US veto of Palestinian statehood in the Security Council risks souring US relations with Muslim countries – a region of particular focus for Obama – but White House officials say they know the administration’s efforts at repairing American standing in the world have faced the most resistance in the Arab world anyway.

“The Arab world has continued to be very challenging ,” said Ben Rhodes, the White House deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, briefing reporters Friday on Obama’s trip to the UN next week.

That difficulty is a result of the “frustration” Mr. Rhodes says everyone feels at the lack of progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he added that no matter how those frustrations may be vented – in New York next week or elsewhere – the reality remains that only negotiations can resolve the conflict.

“What ever happened in New York, this [conflict] is going to be resolved between Israelis and Palestinians,” Rhodes said.

That may be true, but CSIS’s Mr. Alterman says the reality is also that the political conditions for each side – the Israelis and Palestinians – simply aren’t there to suggest hope that direct negotiations can start up again anytime soon.

“The principle problem is a political problem, not a diplomatic problem,” Alterman says, “I don’t see any of the [Palestinians’ UN options] resolving that.”

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