On Thursday, 138 states voted in support of the Palestinian bid to upgrade its status in the U.N. General Assembly. A mere nine states, led by Israel and the U.S., voted no. It was a game-changing moment that will alter the internal political dynamic in both Israel and the Palestinian territories.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has governed on a platform of zero negotiation, compromise, or move toward a political settlement with Palestine. Right-wingers like Netanyahu have constructed an alternative reality in which the “occupation” is completed justified, and the rest of the world is either with them or against them. Much of the Israeli public, separated from the Palestinian territories by both a physical and metaphorical wall, find it easy to pretend that the occupation, settlements, and Palestinian suffering do not even exist.
The U.N. vote was a strong rebuke of the Israeli government’s intransigence by the international community. States such as Germany, expected by the Israeli government to vote no, chose to abstain over their frustration with Netanyahu’s failure to engage in settlement talks.
The vote also opens up room for centrist Israeli politicians such as Tzipi Livni to pressure Netanyahu back to the negotiation table. He will be challenged as a leader without a vision for peace, and even worse, as the PM who furthered Israel’s isolation within the international community and exposed the military establishment to International Criminal Court jurisdiction.
The run-up to the vote exposed deep fissures within Israel. Most notably, former Israeli PM Ehud Olmert came out in support of the Palestinian bid, arguing that “the Palestinian request from the United Nations is congruent with the basic concept of the two-state solution.” Prominent former heads of the Israeli security apparatus also supported the bid.
While the Olmert endorsement was unexpected, his logic is sound. The U.N.-status bid will enhance the prospect of a two-state solution. The Likud Party has worked to establish facts on the ground that if unchallenged would make a future Palestinian state impossible. The U.N. vote recognizes that a two-state solution is paramount.
That is why the true winner of this vote was Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Ridiculed among Palestinians for his inconsistent leadership, Abbas has finally delivered a political win. Thousands have already taken to the streets to celebrate this victory. The successful bid has also brought attention back to the role of the PA after Abbas was undercut and ignored during recent negotiations between Israel and Hamas.
It is very possible that this will be Abbas’s last political act. Palestinian presidential and parliamentary elections were scheduled for the summer of 2010, however both have been repeatedly delayed due to infighting between Hamas and Fatah. Undoubtedly, Abbas and other members of Fatah fear another victory for Hamas. Hopefully, the success of the U.N. bid has opened the door for future Palestinian moderates to seize the mantle of leadership.
Of course, the most important leader who will determine the future of the negotiations is President Barack Obama. Free of the election and the pressure to show that he is unabashedly pro-Israeli, he can now press both the Israelis and the Palestinians to find a realistic political settlement. Having won the Nobel Peace Prize on sheer expectations of what he could accomplish as a leader, now he can deliver.