MAHMOUD ABBAS acknowledged Monday what many Palestinians and Arab leaders concluded long ago: The result of his plan to pursue U.N. ratification of Palestinian statehood will be more hardship for the people of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Congress may terminate U.S. aid, causing an instant economic crisis; Israel is hinting at retaliation, ranging from the withholding of tax funds to the annexation of its West Bank settlements. At worst, demonstrations being orchestrated by Mr. Abbas to support the statehood initiative will get out of hand, producing a violent confrontation with Israel.
As for the statehood proposal itself, it will be voted down or vetoed by the United States in the U.N. Security Council, if it is ever taken up. Abbas could then appeal to the General Assembly, which could upgrade Palestine to a non-member status comparable to that of the Vatican, allowing it to join some international agencies and maybe the International Criminal Court. Yet taking advantage of those forums to challenge Israel will not win Palestinians a state — only more Israeli enmity.
The Obama administration and its European allies have engaged in a frantic wave of diplomacy whose product would be to save Palestinians from their leaders’ latest self-defeating scheme. Of course, Israel also stands to lose from the U.N. votes, which together with deteriorating relationships with Egypt and Turkey could leave it more isolated than at any time in decades. The United States, too, could pay a price in the Arab world if it is forced to veto a statehood resolution — though Palestine has not been a central concern of the mass movements of the Arab Spring.
So far, the rescue mission appears to be making little headway. Mr. Abbas, who at 76 has announced his intention to retire next year, has little incentive to abandon an initiative that, in the form of a General Assembly resolution, could provide him with a superficial political legacy — and save him from embracing the painful concessions that would be needed for an agreement with Israel. Attempts by former British prime minister Tony Blair to formulate a statement by the European Union, United States and Russia that could serve as the basis for new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have foundered in part because of the Palestinian refusal to accept language describing Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people. European proposals for a compromise General Assembly initiative have met similar resistance.
Israel shares responsibility for the developing crisis: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been too slow to embrace reasonable terms for Palestinian statehood. However, the issue that caused a rift last spring between President Obama and Mr. Netanyahu — defining a Palestinian state according to Israel’s 1967 borders, with land swaps — has receded. Mr. Netanyahu now appears ready to accept the principle, provided a recognition that Israel will not return to the 1967 lines. Were he serious about achieving statehood, Mr. Abbas would seize on that point — which he defined as critical just months ago — and proceed with negotiations about drawing a border. Instead, he appears likely to stick with his grand gesture — and to let Palestinians pay the price.