Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and chair of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), plans to call on the United Nations in September to admit a Palestinian state as a full member of the organization.
Abbas' U.N. strategy threatens to put the Palestinian leadership on a political and diplomatic collision course with Israel and the United States. Yet the move does not merit opposition, let alone a direct confrontation. While U.S. and Israeli officials decry the move as an act of "unilateralism" aimed at avoiding negotiations and "delegitimizing" Israel, in reality it is none of these.
Contrary to perception, the Palestinians are not seeking either statehood or recognition from the United Nations, but full membership in it as an existing state. This would require Security Council approval and a two-thirds majority of the General Assembly, making it a quintessentially multilateral act. In any case, the United States will surely veto the Palestinians' bid, forcing them to settle for a simple majority in the General Assembly to become a "nonmember state."
Abbas' gesture is therefore largely symbolic. But this is not to say that it is an empty gesture. The PLO's primary aim is to regain some badly needed political leverage by forcing a shift in the cost-benefit calculations of Israel and the United States. Palestine's admission to the United Nations would, in Abbas' view, transform the conflict into a matter of one member state violating the sovereign rights of another. In short, Palestinians hope to use the bid to pressure Israel and the United States to engage in more equitable negotiations, whether these take place before, after, or instead of the U.N. vote.
This strategy did not come about in a vacuum or overnight. Its roots lie in the belief, long held by ordinary Palestinians, that two decades of "peace processing" have failed not only to produce tangible benefits but actually yielded a great many losses. The Arab Spring also played a role by forcing Abbas to reassess his political priorities and increasing the cost of continuing to ignore his public opinion. Even before the Arab uprisings, senior Palestinian officials had privately acknowledged that the PA's legitimacy was "hanging by a thread."
Far from negating the possibility of peace negotiations, therefore, the Palestinians' U.N. gambit is aimed at strengthening their negotiating posture vis-à-vis Israel and the United States while improving the domestic standing of Abbas and his colleagues. A U.N. vote will not end the Israeli occupation or create a sovereign state on the ground. But by registering it officially with the United Nations, the Palestinians hope to preserve the option of a two-state solution, now rapidly being foreclosed by Israel's ever-expanding settlement enterprise, until Israel and the United States can pursue it more seriously.
That U.S. and Israeli officials are prepared to go to the mat to prevent even a symbolic move toward statehood -- a goal both governments otherwise claim to support -- is nothing short of bizarre. American and Israeli opposition is all the more baffling when considering the alternatives on the Palestinian side. Over Abbas' shoulder sits Hamas, whose violent past and ambivalence toward a two-state solution make it an unlikely peace partner. Just beyond the horizon, however, is a new generation of Palestinians who are not wedded to the two-state solution and even less so to the peace process and who will, sooner or later, catch the revolutionary bug sweeping the region.
Whether the U.N. bid is successful, it is already bearing fruit. For the first time in many years, it is the Palestinians who are setting the agenda. Nevertheless, the plan entails some serious risks. Most crucial for the Palestinians is the risk of alienating Israel and the United States, both of which seem determined to defeat the measure even before it gets to a vote and are threatening to punish the Palestinians if its does. The bid also risks unduly raising the expectations of the Palestinian people, further undercutting the PA's credibility. On the other hand, withdrawing the initiative at this stage would likely deal an even more severe blow to Abbas and his leadership.
Rather than viewing the Palestinians' U.N. bid as a threat to a moribund peace process, the United States should see it as an opportunity to reset a failed and severely outdated approach to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It should seek to preempt the U.N. vote by working with other key international actors to develop a bold, new initiative that spells out the requirements for a comprehensive resolution to the conflict (the outlines of which are already known) and then marshaling broad international support for it.
Short of this kind of bold initiative, even if the U.S. government does convince the Palestinians to abandon their U.N. bid, it will only have succeeded in delaying, rather than preventing, a more serious crisis down the road.
Khaled Elgindy is a visiting fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. He served as an adviser to the Palestinian leadership on permanent-status negotiations with Israel in 2004-9. This article is adapted from a longer version in the September/October issue of "Foreign Affairs."