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Will Marshall

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Behind Abbas's UN Gambit

Posted: 09/20/11 06:52 PM ET

Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas will ask the United Nations tomorrow to welcome Palestine as its 194th member and newest state. As Abbas well knows, that's not going to happen. So why are Palestinians devoting their diplomatic energies to scoring purely symbolic points at Turtle Bay?

In essence, Palestinians are engaging in a kind of forum shopping. Historically, the UN has been sympathetic to their plight, and notoriously hostile to Israel. Abbas comes to New York seeking statehood on terms more favorable than the Palestinians have been able to get from nearly two decades of peace processing with Israel. It's part of an all-too-familiar pattern in which Palestinian leaders expect the international community to spare them from making the unpopular concessions that peace with Israel demands.

Abbas claims his hand has been forced by Israeli intransigence. There's something to that: The right-listing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been obdurate and prickly in its dealings with everyone, from the PA to Washington. It has failed to offer imaginative proposals for rekindling stalled peace talks, to confront a settler movement that threatens to hijack Israel's domestic politics, and to counter effectively a spreading campaign to isolate and delegitimate the Jewish state.

Nonetheless, it was Abbas, not Netanyahu, who walked away from bilateral talks last year in a dispute over Israeli settlements. Now Abbas is pulling an end run around the peace process -- and putting Washington on the spot -- by asking the Security Council to grant Palestine full UN membership. The Obama administration has vowed to veto any such resolution, even though it supports a Palestinian state in principle. The White House rightly insists that the Palestinians can earn statehood only by making peace with Israel.

Abbas won't return home to Ramallah with the grand prize of statehood. So why raise expectations that he knows will be dashed?

Here we wade into the multilayered subtleties of Middle East politics. One obvious motive is to dramatize Israel's growing isolation in the region, as Turkey turns on its erstwhile ally and anti-Israel sentiment flares next door in post-Mubarak Egypt. Another is to split Europe and the United States and stoke anger at America in the Arab street, thereby racheting up pressure on Washington to extract concessions from Israel.

Many observers believe that Abbas is desperate to head off Arab Spring-style demonstrations against the PA, which has been losing popularity in recent years to Hamas. If this reading is correct, then Abbas's U.N. gambit has more to do with perpetuating the PA's lease on power in the West Bank than winning recognition of a Palestinian state.

Finally, even if statehood is out of reach the Palestinians could win a booby prize if the UN General Assembly upgrades their status to that of a "non-member state." This would allow Palestine to join various international bodies and possibly to press claims against Israel in the International Criminal Court.

Whatever his motives, Abbas's UN caper carries immense risks. The PA has called for massive, non-violent demonstrations in the West Bank today to drum up support for the statehood bid. If these get out of hand, and provoke a violent confrontation with Israel, it will break a fragile peace and undo progress toward handing over security responsibilities in the West Bank to Palestinian forces.

Unilateral assertions of "sovereignty" could also prove costly for the Palestinians in other ways. Israel, for example, could withhold custom duties it collects that help to pay PA salaries. Both Houses of Congress likewise have passed resolutions threatening to cut off U.S. aid -- $600 million a year -- to the PA.

Such punitive measures, however, raise the specter that many observers fear most -- the PA's collapse. If, as seems likely, Abbas's gambit fails to change conditions on the ground, it could engender massive disillusionment with the PA and Fatah. The winner would not be Israel but Hamas, which has no interest in a Palestinian state that does not include the whole of what is now the state of Israel. Barring another intifida and outbreak of terrorism, Israel and Washington ought to keep cool and keep funding the PA.

The United States nonetheless should stand firm against premature demands for Palestinian statehood. If it were created today, the new entity would lack two prerequisites for international recognition as an independent state: political unity and an unambiguous commitment to peaceful cooexistence with Israel.

In fact, it is the PA-Hamas split, not Israel, that poses the greatest obstacle to Palestinian aspirations to dignity, justice and independence. The blunt truth is, that until the Palestinians resolve their internal conflict -- in favor of a negotiated peace and a two-state solution -- they don't deserve to have one of their own.

This item is cross-posted at the Progressive Policy Institute.