The Palestinians’ gamble pays off

This was a historic day at the United Nations, as the world watched Mahmoud Abbas waving a copy of the Palestinians’ application for U.N. membership as a full-fledged state to thunderous applause from delegates.

The application triggered a storm of international diplomatic activity culminating in a timetable from the Middle East Quartet, and an offer from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for talks “today, in the United Nations.”

This was always a gamble by Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president who decided to pursue a bid for statehood through the U.N. Security Council despite a public warning from Obama who lined up with Israel to declare from the U.N. podium this week that there could be no “shortcut” to peace.

But even though it looks as though Abbas has had to swallow a diplomatic compromise delaying the actual consideration of the statehood measure, which would be sure to attract a U.S. veto in the Security Council, his initiative now seems justified. Without him laying the nuclear option of statehood on the table, there would have been no movement either internationally or by Israel.

That said, nothing has really changed to permit any hope that negotiations will lead anywhere, even if they do resume. In their U.N. speeches today, if you look beyond the soaring rhetoric, both Abbas and Netanyahu blamed the other side for the lack of progress. The two leaders were still talking past each other.

Abbas said that the core issue is the building of Jewish settlements, which caused peace negotiations convened by Obama to collapse last year after only a few weeks, while Netanyahu said the problem is that the Palestinians don’t want to recognize Israel “in any border.”

But Abbas’s nuclear option remains on the table. This could be a game changer for the Palestinians. If (or rather, when) they fail to gain statehood at the Security Council, they can take their bid to the U.N. General Assembly, where no state holds a veto, and where they are certain to win approval of a status upgrade to non-member observer state.

So on balance, Abbas was right. He had nothing to lose. And one day, states will have to stand up and be counted and we will see how many of the delegates applauding today will actually back some form of enhanced international recognition for the Palestinians.