A UN vote on Palestinian statehood could fundamentally change the terms of two-state negotiations - if Abbas has the determination to follow through
Determined bid for statehood is vital to Palestine
Today Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, can begin to change the rules. His speech to the UN General Assembly, and request that Palestine be recognised as a state, brings this most intractable dispute to the international community - and out of a biased framework where Palestinian interests have been steadily chipped away. After decades of abiding by unilateral Israeli demands, as faithfully relayed by the United States, Palestinian leaders finally have the initiative if they are determined to use it.
We use the word "if" advisedly. Mr Abbas has promised to submit the Palestinian bid to the Security Council for recognition as a fully fledged member of the United Nations. That would require a majority of the 15 Security Council members to support Palestinian statehood, which the United States will veto the proposal in any event. And navigating the Security Council process could take weeks, with every step an opportunity to take a wrong turn.
There has already been speculation that Mr Abbas may demur if given a face-saving excuse. The Middle East Quartet, including the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, has proposed postponing the Security Council vote to allow Israeli-Palestinian negotiations to resume. It is not inconceivable that the Palestinian Authority would claim a half-victory, rather than risk confrontation - and losing revenue from Israeli-collected taxes and US aid. Or, after the expected defeat in the UN Security Council, Mr Abbas might throw up his hands and return home.
Either step would disappoint this extraordinary opportunity for the Palestinian cause. For decades, Palestinians have fought in the two arenas where Israel was assured of victory: the halls of US power and the battlefield. Nonviolent resistance and appeal to international opinion - which greatly favours the claims of the Palestinian people - pressures Israel in ways that suicide bombers and handshakes on the White House lawn never can.
The UN vote should not be seen just as a tactical move to scare Israel back to the same negotiating table. International opinion in favour of the Palestinians is a powerful, largely untapped force.
That main objection to the UN bid has been that a two-state solution must be negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians, an objection repeated by the US President Barack Obama on Wednesday night. But US-sponsored talks have reached a dead end and Washington proven an unworthy broker. Mr Obama's abandonment of even the basic outlines of a viable Palestinian state - an outline he defended as recently as May - shows the folly of relying on Washington.
As direct negotiations proceeded two years ago, Israel proceeded apace with illegal settlements while Washington's toothless protests availed nothing. Worse than an impasse, negotiations that overwhelmingly favoured Israel threatened a fundamentally unjust conclusion. The Palestinian Papers revealed possible concessions, including the acceptance of settlements and the surrender of Jerusalem, that gave away Palestinians' basic claims.
A return to that is not an option. Mr Abbas and his colleagues have a responsibility to bring this decision to the international community, to a Security Council vote and beyond to the floor of the General Assembly.
Another objection that Mr Obama raised was that peace would be negotiated, not the result of unilateral action. The irony was obvious. For too long Israel has been allowed to dictate the terms of negotiations, terms that cannot lead to peace because they are fundamentally unjust. This UN bid gives the Palestinians the chance, at least, to assert a new solution that could actually work.