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A Palestinian protestor holds a Palestinian flag in front of extreme right wing Jewish settler's house during a weekly protest in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem

While Americans have been focusing on their election, there have been a few developments in the so-called “Middle East Peace Process.”

PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas has said he would drop his precondition for negotiations – a total construction halt in the settlements and in East Jerusalem – and return to the table after the U.N. General Assembly votes in “Palestine” as a “non-member state observer.” “When we return from the U.N. General Assembly and are a non-member state based on 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as the capital, the way to direct negotiations will be open to achieve security and stability on this basis,” a top spokesman for Abbas has explained.  This is significant because negotiations have been stalled for four years due to the demand for a construction freeze, which was in essence imposed on the Palestinians by the Obama administration.

Moreover, Abbas told an Israeli interviewer last Friday that he saw Palestine as the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and Gaza, noting that he would like to visit the city of his birth, Safed, which is now in Israel, but realized he had no right to live there. By saying this he appeared to waive the so-called “right of return” of Palestinians to cities in Israel. This would be an important step, but Abbas and the PLO soon decided that he had gone too far and returned to older rhetoric.  “The right of return is holy and no one can deny it,” Abbas more recently told an Egyptian interviewer saying that he had only meant that he personally would not return to Safed. “What I said about Safed was my own personal position, and it did not mean giving up the right of return. No one can give up the right of return,” Abbas said.

The official Israeli reaction has not been positive: “Only in direct negotiations can the real positions be clarified,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday; “If Abu Mazen [Abbas] is really serious and intends to promote peace, as far as I’m concerned we can sit down together immediately.” The Netanyahu government is focusing not on Abbas’s conflicting statements but on the U.N. vote – and has said there would be a price to pay for it. A vote on Palestinian U.N. membership as a “non-member state” will “only push peace back and will only produce unnecessary instability,” Netanyahu said this week.

“I wonder whether Israel is best defending its interests by turning the vote [on Palestinian non-state U.N. membership] into a crisis.” – Elliott Abrams, Council on Foreign Relations

I have long thought this Israeli focus on the U.N. vote to be excessive. The danger is real: when the PLO becomes, in U.N. terms, the member state of “Palestine” it probably has status to bring cases against Israelis in the International Criminal Court. Doing so will embitter Israeli-Palestinian relations each time a case is brought, and Abbas will be under constant pressure to bring new cases. And the new U.N. member “Palestine” can complain that Israel is occupying its territory and making war on it when any counter-terror operations are conducted.

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in a September 15, 2010, file photo (Reuters).

Nevertheless, this Palestinian move brings potential benefits as well. First, once “Palestine” has become a U.N. member state it is far harder to argue that the “one-state solution” remains viable. Legally, the Palestinians will have moved definitively away from that outcome. Second, if this new status for the PLO creates difficulties for Israel it creates greater ones for “Palestine.” What is Gaza, after all? A “lost province” that has rebelled, or territory of the new state – and if the latter, isn’t it an act of war every time a mortar or rocket is launched by Gazans into Israel? If “Palestine” is a U.N. member state, what is the legal status of Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza? Are they citizens of that state – and if so, why not shut down UNRWA, the U.N. agency that deals with Palestinian “refugees?” This leaves the Palestinians to argue that their new U.N. status is meaningless, unimportant, symbolic – which once again raises the question why the PLO is doing it. I suppose it is because the leadership has no constructive ideas about what to do, and has found the difficult daily work of building a state unattractive.

In fact, the U.N. vote will change little or nothing on the ground, which is another reason I wonder whether Israel is best defending its interests by turning the vote into a crisis. The American position should, it seems to me, be to oppose this Palestinian step as a useless complication – as we are doing. But we too should stop short of threats to cut off aid to the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank because of it. The collapse of the Palestinian Authority is not in our interest – nor in Israel’s, as surely the Israelis must recognize and as Israeli security agencies do fully realize. For the Israelis to take retaliatory steps that make their own situation worse cannot be a sensible reaction to the Palestinian move.

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Elliott Abrams

Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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