Palestinians at the U.N. -- a March of Folly

In her classic work The March of Folly, historian Barbara Tuchman examined several examples of governments or leaders who doggedly pursued policies counter to their self-interests, with disastrous results.

That is exactly what Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is doing by going to the United Nations next week with his unilateral statehood resolution.

From the Palestinian viewpoint, Abbas can count on an automatic majority in the General Assembly from Islamic and so-called "non-aligned" states, many of them non-democracies, for just about any resolution he presents.

He says that getting a resolution declaring Palestine a state will allow the Palestinians to seek membership of U.N. special agencies as well as other international organizations.

Abbas argued in a New York Times article on May 16 that, "Palestine's admission to the United Nations would pave the way for the internationalization of the conflict as a legal matter, not only a political one. It would also pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice."

Against this "achievement" -- if such it is -- one has to measure the many downsides of this risky move.

First, let's stipulate that this move will not gain a state for the Palestinians. Abbas himself recognizes that only through negotiations with Israel can he achieve this goal. The resolution will not even gain the Palestinians full membership of the United Nations, since it is far from clear they have nine votes in the Security Council. Even if they do, the United States will use its veto to prevent the resolution from passing. The most the Palestinians can achieve is a slight upgrade in their status to that of "permanent non-member observer state."

This resolution threatens the peace process because it is an end-run around negotiations. The move violates many existing agreements and understandings between the parties not to act unilaterally. It's going to be much harder to renew negotiations after this resolution than it was before. Negotiations require confidence between the parties that both are acting in good faith. Such confidence is already at a low ebb, but this move will shatter whatever goodwill still remains.

Abbas will be souring relations with the United States as well as many other countries which are urging him not to proceed. He is also ignoring the advice of prominent people within his own camp like Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, who has been arguing strenuously against it.

This resolution may well create instability and violence on the ground by creating exaggerated expectations among the Palestinians that cannot be fulfilled. The storming of the Israeli embassy in Cairo last weekend illustrated how easily events can spiral out of control, leading to tragic outcomes that nobody desires.

Protests in the territories may initially be aimed at Israel but could soon be turned against Abbas himself when people realize that his grand strategy has not changed their lives for the better -- but in fact only made them worse. The ultimate beneficiary will be Hamas, waiting in the wings for the Palestinian leadership to falter.

Passage of the resolution could destabilize the finances of the Palestinian Authority, putting Palestinian economic progress in jeopardy and throwing thousands back into poverty. Development aid to the Palestinian Authority from donor nations could be compromised, potentially reversing recent gains by the Palestinian economy.

Already, the PA is in financial trouble as expected donations from Arab countries have not materialized. If the U.S. Congress cuts all or part of the $500 million dollars it has given the PA each year for the past several years, the Palestinian economic miracle will melt away.

Abbas is about to tip over the first in a series of dominoes. He can control the start of the process but not even he knows where it will end.