Palestine's Rocky Path to the United Nations

Europe Needs to Step in Where the United States Has Failed

As Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reaffirmed last week, the Palestine Liberation Organization will present an application for UN membership on Friday to be considered by the Security Council. This move appears to close the door on the possibility that Palestinian officials would withdraw their application in favor of a General Assembly resolution if such a vote were to enjoy a critical mass of support from EU member states.

In the eyes of the Palestinian leadership, Europe is the big prize. Abbas hopes to leverage the UN bid to recruit other global heavyweights as a counterbalance to the United States. But not at any cost: when European offers last week proved underwhelming and loaded with conditions that Ramallah could not accept, Abbas confirmed his current course, with all the negative consequences that entails. But all hope might not yet be lost.

It has become catechism among the Palestinian leadership that there will be no return to bilateral negotiations with Israel in the absence of acceptable terms of reference and a settlement freeze. Even before negotiations broke down in September 2010 after two failed rounds of talks (one direct between Israelis and Palestinians, the other indirect, via U.S. mediators), Palestinian leaders had trumpeted the United Nations as a fallback option.

They claimed that full UN membership was indeed a practical option: either the United States could be pressured not to veto the Palestinian application in the Security Council or the U.S. veto could be circumvented in the General Assembly. But these declarations, premised on inadequate knowledge of the UN system, turned out to be plain wrong. Without any other options and with his already weakened credibility on the line, Abbas plowed ahead with the original idea, even as his surrogates explored alternative paths, such as requesting non-member observer state status.

"You have to understand what the Palestinian mentality is right now," an Egyptian official told me several months ago. "The leadership feels that it's out of options, and the UN is the proverbial last bullet in the gun. They are going to use it." At this point, having backed themselves into a corner, Abbas and his allies have little choice. Were they to step back now, with no suitable compensation, they would only confirm their fecklessness in the eyes of their people.

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