At the end of this week, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is expected to bring a request for full United Nations membership before the Security Council. Even in the unlikely event that this succeeds, little will change on the ground: Israel will still occupy Palestinian territory, and Israelis and Palestinians will still have to negotiate an end to their conflict. U.S. and Israeli officials have chastised Abbas for what they call a “unilateral action” that will endanger prospects for peace. This is difficult to swallow for Palestinians, who feel that they are entitled to achieve statehood in the same way that Israel achieved it. And with Israel pursuing its unilateral effort to settle the West Bank and East Jerusalem, and the bilateral peace process at a dead end, they see little choice but to go to the United Nations -- the quintessentially multilateral route.

If anything, resorting to the UN is taking the conflict back to its original arena. In 1947, just two years after the UN’s founding, the General Assembly provided legitimacy for Israel’s statehood by approving the partition plan for Palestine, which called for the creation of a Jewish state alongside an Arab one. For Israel’s founders, this vote was the culmination of a generations-long campaign for statehood that had been made even more urgent by the near destruction of European Jewry during World War II. Israel’s subsequent declaration of independence established its authority on “the strength of the resolution of the United Nations General Assembly,” and today the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Web site prominently features a scratchy recording of the roll-call vote on the partition plan. It was a UN undersecretary general, Ralph Bunche, who mediated the armistice that officially ended the first Arab-Israeli war in 1949, which continues to be the reference point for border negotiations.

Since then, the UN’s role in the Middle East has seen its fair share of controversy. Israel was deeply estranged from the international body when, in 1975, the General Assembly labeled Zionism a form of racism. In the late 1990s, Secretary-General Kofi Annan labored to restore a balanced climate by lobbying for Israel’s admission to the Western European and Others Group, which allowed it to put forward candidates for subsidiary bodies of the General Assembly. He later strove to recover a UN role as mediator to the conflict by helping to cobble together the Quartet in 2002 and promoting its ill-fated “roadmap” for peace. Recently, the UN’s credibility among Palestinians has been undermined by the Quartet’s boycott of the Hamas government, which was elected in 2006, and its support for Israel’s quarantine of Gaza.

Palestinians do not expect much from the UN bid, but armed resistance has had its day and negotiations are in a deep rut. The Palestinians have suffered displacement, disappointment, and discrimination for generations. Palestine Liberation Organization leader Yasir Arafat’s 1988 declaration of independence barely merits a footnote today. At Oslo, the PLO took part in a political process that was meant to build confidence and lead to independence, but it unwittingly reinvigorated the Israeli settler movement, which greatly expanded its presence in the West Bank in the following years. To make matters worse, Palestinian leaders have been erratic. In their struggle for liberation, they have often resorted to, or at least tolerated, brutal acts of terror that have greatly damaged their cause.

The peace process has yielded little movement since the violence of the second intifada erupted in 2000 and Israel’s subsequent swing to the right. Israel’s hyper-proportional parliamentary system ensures that small parties bear disproportionate influence in governing coalitions. Any government that moves to meet Palestinian demands risks the defection of these parties, some of which seem to exist solely to prevent a peace deal. Israeli leaders are unwilling to tackle the entrenchment of the settlers, illegal under international law, who have become one of the most powerful political forces in the country.

The Palestinian initiative, then, is an act of desperation born of deep frustration. Abbas, who by experience and temperament is not confrontational, has made clear that he prefers negotiations. It was only in the absence of viable terms for talks that he opted to go to the UN, even though he risks alienating the only ally that can deliver Israel in negotiations -- the United States. And if he backs down without achieving anything concrete, or if efforts for a crucial Fatah-Hamas reconciliation are undercut, his political standing at home will be severely weakened. (Hamas, hedging its bets, has dissociated itself from the UN move without opposing it.) Those seeking to persuade him to return to negotiations would have to show him a persuasive path forward -- one that includes a freeze of settlement construction. No wonder he is resorting to the diplomatic equivalent of a Hail Mary pass.

I came away from two frustrating years as the chief UN envoy to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (2005-2007) thinking that the sole way to bring about a solution would be for Israel to receive the kind of wake-up call that only the United States can muster. That has yet to happen, despite the fact that the demographics of the status quo could soon spell the end of Israeli democracy. But the coming UN showdown -- coupled with the changes sweeping the Middle East -- could spur the paradigm shift that is needed for peace.

The primary driving forces of the Arab Spring are bad governance, massive unemployment, and the unacceptable relationship between corrupt regimes and their people. But Palestinian flags fluttered at Tahrir Square, and the wave of popular uprisings has restored the significance of regional public opinion -- deeply resentful of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians -- to policy formulation. Regional governments, as well as the United States and Israel, ignore this popular sentiment at their peril.

It is this surge in popular opinion -- and not the Palestinian UN bid -- that is chiefly responsible for Israel’s diplomatic isolation, particularly from its traditional regional allies, Egypt and Turkey. The Egyptian public is manifestly unhappy with the country’s cold peace with Israel. It particularly resents former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s complicity in Israel’s blockade of Gaza. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan’s assertive stance toward Israel in recent weeks is hugely popular in Turkey and among Arabs. To restore its diplomatic standing, Israel will need to pursue new policies, rather than simply try to block international campaigns -- such as the Palestinian UN bid -- that it characterizes as “delegitimization.”

As the pioneer Europeanist Jean Monnet advised in his memoirs, when a problem becomes intractable -- the Israeli-Palestinian conflict being a textbook example -- a better approach than tackling it head-on is to change the context. Both Oslo and the roadmap rest on the now-defunct premise that mutual confidence can develop between an occupied people and its occupier. Accepting Palestinian statehood at the UN will not end the Israeli occupation, but it just might bring about the change of context that is necessary for peace.

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  • ALVARO DE SOTO is a Senior Fellow at the Ralph Bunche Institute in New York. He served as the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process from 2005 to 2007.
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