What's behind Mahmoud Abbas' decision to seek statehood? Frustration and desperation. The Palestinian leader may be seeking to stave off popular pressure before Arab Spring– style uprisings challenge his rule. Or he may be trying to prompt the U.S. to apply more pressure on Israel's hard-line government to compromise in on-again, off-again negotiations.
But nonmember observer-state status, the most realistic outcome of Abbas' plan, would not bring a Palestinian state any closer to reality. More likely, any “victory” in the U.N. would come with a heavy price tag. Israelis could make life far more difficult by increasing security closures, expanding settlements or holding back funds. Also at risk: American aid. Israeli and American reactions could jeopardize the continued success of a Palestinian economy that is projected to grow at 7%. Any satisfaction with a U.N. vote could quickly turn to frustration.
Others would lose as well. An American veto would be wildly unpopular in the Arab world. It would sharply increase the odds that the new government in Egypt would be anti-American. Popular protests in the Arab world would also prove costly to Israel. It could place the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty in jeopardy and do the same for Israel's relations with Jordan.
It may not be too late to head off these dire outcomes. The Security Council will likely take weeks to consider Abbas' application. The “Quartet” overseeing Middle East diplomacy—the U.S., Russia, the U.N. and the European Union—could use this time to restart negotiations. Israel should use any pause to reassess its current strategy. Israeli security can be understood as consisting of three concentric circles: an inner circle of Palestinians; a middle circle of Israel's neighbors; and an outer circle including the rest of the Arab world, Iran and an increasingly Islamist Turkey. Israel's security environment is clearly deteriorating in all three circles. Resolving the conflict with the Palestinians would allow Israel to focus on its most pressing threat: Iran's nuclear and missile programs.
Resolving the Palestinian conflict, though, requires direct talks, the only proven method of advancing peace in the region. To be sure, negotiations would be exceedingly difficult, as they would have to resolve issues central to the dispute. It is well worth trying. A state is not a favor Israel would bestow on the Palestinians; it is a favor Israel would give to itself so that it could remain secure, Jewish, democratic and prosperous. Good strategy requires a willingness to set priorities and make trade-offs. It is understandable but not enough for Israelis to criticize the Palestinian decision to go to the U.N.; it is also incumbent on Israelis to show that negotiations can yield the ultimate prize of statehood if Palestinians are willing to meet them halfway.
Haass is the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
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