Palestinian Authority jefe grande Abbas has tossed down the gauntlet to Barack Obama and the rest of his "foreign policy team." The PA will seek full membership in the UN as a sovereign state Abbas declared in a highly reported speech to his fellow countrymen.
This move seems to be a very severe defeat for both Israel and the Obama administration. The Netanyahu ministry has done everything short of declaring war on the PA. The Obama "team" including the president has not been much more restrained, threatening (or promising, if you prefer) to veto the move when it comes before the Security Council for action.
A veto would not be looked at with favor in the Arab states generally as was made palpably clear in a recent op-ed piece in the WaPo by one of those interminable Saudi princes and diplomatic heavyweights. Participants in outdoor sports favored by the "Arab Street" such as riots and suicide bombings will be much less restrained in their disapprobation.
Advocates of realpolitik have noted that even admission to the UN either as a state or a state observer will change nothing for the better on the ground. There is much to justify this view. Likewise there is much to support the dystopian notions that the Palestinians will use either state observer or state status to cause a world of hurt for Israel in the assorted UN sub-agencies and the International Criminal Court.
The pessimistic interpretations do not, however, merit the US using its veto power in the Security Council. Doing such would only assure the PA would take its petition to the General Assembly in search of the consolation prize of state observer status, which would give it all the trouble making possibilities along with assuring a very large can would be tied to Uncle Sam's tail.
A far better course of action for the Obama administration to take is that of delay. The process established for seeking recognition as a state by the UN provides an almost infinite mechanism of creative stalling. The formal request must first go to the Secretary General. The Secretary General does not have to handle the matter instantly but can request further information before forwarding the request to the Security Council. Doing this can take weeks--or months.
The Security Council can also demand more information as well as proof that the proposed Palestinian state meets all the diplomatic requirements for state status. This means the Council can find itself caught in a set of hearings and debates over the degree to which the Palestinian Authority and the territory under its purported control does in fact constitute a fully functioning state. Given the deep and growing divide between the West Bank based Palestinian Authority and its rival in the Gaza Strip, Hamas, and the fiction that Palestine constitutes a single entity, this could lead to a number of second thoughts within chanceries seemingly committed to the idea of Palestinian statehood.
A full fledged inquiry and debate within the Security Council could even have the potential to undercut any move in the General Assembly for state observer status. This is not a nontrivial benefit given the uncertainty and ambiguity extant within the European Union for this gambit. The US might even enlist the cooperation of Russia in seeking a complete airing of whether or not the Palestinian state really exists by quietly noting that any approval by either the Security Council or the General Assembly would constitute a bad precedent from the Kremlin's point of view considering the current ethnic and religious unrest in the Northern Caucasus. The name, "Tibet," whispered in certain ears might elicit a reasonably favorable response from Beijing.
The point is the US could lobby effectively for a prolonged inquiry by the Security Council, which would buy that most precious of commodities--time--for bilateral diplomacy to make another run at the moribund "peace process" between Israel and the PA. Abbas would have his political posterior covered enough to keep him in his tenuous position for some while since he would have delivered on his promises and cannot be held personally responsible for UN protocol.
Sure there would still be some riots, some bombings, some threats of worse from the "Arab Street" and other usual Muslim suspects such as the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, but what else is to be expected? The US would be spared the major problems which exercise of the veto would bring.
The Israelis, or at least some of them, would not be thrilled but, again, what else would you expect? A delay might allow calmer heads (assuming there are any) around Netanyahu to provide sound counsel respecting the recommencement of talks with Abbas and company. There is even the faint prospect that the Obama administration might find the right magic to convince Netanyahu to wake up to the new and alarming political realities in his neighborhood, realities which cannot be addressed by simple words and the implied threat of Israeli military displeasure.
A delay would benefit all interested parties. A veto would not. It looks like a no-brainer. Of course, being the simplest and safest way to go means it is not acceptable to either the Deep Thinkers or the ideologues who populate too much of the foreign policy world, not only here but everywhere.