THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY will almost certainly win a vote Thursday in the U.N. General Assembly granting observer status to a state of Palestine. But it will be a pale triumph for President Mahmoud Abbas and his West Bank-based Fatah movement. So weak has his administration become, especially in contrast to its rival, the Gaza-based Hamas movement, that some governments, such as Britain, are considering voting for the resolution, even though they oppose it in principle, out of fear that the authority is fading into irrelevance. Israel, too, appears to have toned down its plans for reacting, with officials saying they will wait and see what Mr. Abbas does after the vote.
The Palestinian leader has hinted at a couple of different and contradictory courses. One would involve immediately entering into direct peace negotiations with Israel — something Mr. Abbas has refused to do for almost all of the past four years. A spokesman said this month that after the U.N. vote “the way will be open to direct talks,” and Mr. Abbas himself made a conciliatory-sounding statement about the Palestinian claim of a “right of return” to Israel, though he later retreated from it. By engaging the government of Benjamin Netanyahu in unconditional talks, Mr. Abbas could force it to spell out its bottom line on terms for Palestinian statehood — something that, thanks to Mr. Abbas’s intransigence, this Israeli government has never had to do.
Mr. Abbas’s advisers, however, have also talked of another strategy: using the new U.N. status to bring cases against Israel in the International Criminal Court and possibly other international forums, while describing its continued occupation of parts of the West Bank as an act of international aggression. This would cheer many opponents of Israel, but it would also provoke a backlash from European governments as well as Israel and the United States, which would probably respond by cutting off funding to the cash-strapped authority once and for all. Meanwhile, any U.N. agency Palestine sought to join would probably find itself, like UNESCO, contemplating the loss of the one-fifth of its budget supplied by Congress.
At age 77, Mr. Abbas may well shrink from either course, instead claiming the U.N. vote as his legacy. For the umpteenth time, there are efforts underway to broker a reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas; this could lead to long-overdue Palestinian elections, along with Mr. Abbas’s retirement. Though touted by the Obama administration as a peacemaker, the Palestinian leader appears unwilling to commit himself to the concessions that would be needed for a deal with any Israeli government. Meanwhile, with Israeli elections due in January, Mr. Netanyahu appears to be more dependent than ever on nationalist hard-liners in his Likud Party.
This leaves the Obama administration with the unenviable duty of trying to avoid the worst in the Middle East — a new upsurge of violence between Israelis and Palestinians, or a collapse of the Palestinian Authority — without much prospect of progress toward genuine Palestinian statehood. Much as such progress is desirable, it will require Palestinian leaders who are willing to do more than lob rockets at Israel — or submit pointless petitions to the United Nations.