Why Palestinian Leaders are Doing Obama a Favor By Taking Their U.N. Bid to the Security Council

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas speaks at his headquarters in Ramallah on September 16, 2011. (Photo: Atef Safadi / EPA)

Friday’s announcement by President Mahmoud Abbas that he will next week present the U.N. Security Council with a formal request for U.N. membership of a sovereign state of Palestine may be better news for Israel and the U.S. than it might appear, even if it confirms the failure of the Obama Administration to stop the move.

Conventional wisdom on the Palestinian move for U.N. action on the stalled peace process holds that seeking Security Council authorization of full U.N. membership creates a bigger headache for the Obama Administration than if the Palestinians instead heed European pleas to settle for a lesser option — asking the General Assembly to upgrade the status of the Palestinian entity to something between an observer and a member  (or, as the media loves to say, something equivalent to the status of the Vatican, without pausing to consider quite how ridiculous that sounds). The reason the Security Council approach is deemed more challenging for President Obama is that it would osentsibly force the U.S. to isolate itself internationally — and squander any Arab-public goodwill earned through  helping overthrow Gaddafi — in order to wield the veto promised to Israel and the bipartisan pro-Israel consensus in Washington.

But the conventional wisdom has it wrong, suggests former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy, now at the New America Foundation.  An approach to the Security Council will actually reduce next week’s much-hyped showdown during the General Assembly session in New York to little more than a series of predictable speeches. Going the Security Council route makes any action very unlikely. That’s because the first response to a Security Council request to admit Palestine as a U.N. member state would that familiar Washington ritual: Setting up a committee.

“Any application would almost certainly have to be considered by a technical committee of the whole, and that could take time,” warns Levy. The process would almost certainly be drawn out well beyond the General Assembly session. So, timing alone would likely deny the Palestinians the option of responding to a U.S. veto at the Security Council by immediately taking the issue to the General Assembly, where it would win overwhelming backing — albeit for the lesser, but nonetheless potentially important goal of upgrading Palestinian status and codifying the international consensus on terms for a two-state solution, which Israel’s government continues to reject.

By going to Security Council in the same week that the General Assembly is in session, in fact, the Palestinians “might even find their entire U.N. moment sidestepped by extended committee deliberation.”

Even in the less probable event that a Security Council application for membership was brought to a rapid vote, the U.S. is unlikely to be the only country withholding its support: Germany has already indicated that it won’t support a recognition of full member status now, nor is Britain likely to do so, while the votes of France and Colombia might be in play and the U.S. might even hope to persuade Nigeria and Gabon to abstain. By going to the Security Council without first demonstrating their overwhelming support in the General Assembly, the Palestinians are therefore taking a risk. (And, of course, some of the Europeans that won’t vote in favor of full membership at the Security Council are trying to persuade Abbas to ask for something less at the General Assembly, for which they could vote without fearing they’d create an a confrontation over Israel’s continued occupation of the territory of what had now been recognized as a sovereign Palestinian state.)

In short, despite all the buildup, next week’s “showdown” in New York could turn out to be a damp squib if the Palestinians approach the Security Council and, as is likely, get no immediate answer. On the other hand, getting an overwhelming majority of the General Assembly to recognize the contours of a Palestinian state as being based on the 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital, would strengthen the Palestinians’ hand in future negotiations with Israel, even if the Assembly cannot confer full U.N. membership. That would provide a significant counterbalance to the advantages the Israelis enjoy by having peace talks exclusively mediated by Washington, where Israel’s overwhelming advantage in domestic political support effectively precludes even-handedness.

But although matters remain fluid and very much in play, Friday’s announcement suggests that Abbas is taking the largely symbolic route of applying for full membership, knowing that the outcome will be unfavorable but not having availed himself of an opportunity to expand Palestinian’ leverage in a battle to end the occupation. Indeed, argues Levy, the Security Council route is almost certain to leave the status quo untouched. Abbas will go back to his people and tell them he won a moral victory; Netanyahu will tell Israelis that he, in fact, was the moral victor, and reality on the ground in the West Bank will remain entirely unchanged. As Levy puts it, “The journey back to the golden cage of Palestinian Authority co-habitation with Israeli occupation is a shorter one from the Security Council than it is from the General Assembly.”