How often do the Palestinians get the chance to seize the diplomatic initiative and needle their adversaries? One of those rare moments will arrive on Thursday when Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, will formally apply for the position of non-member â€œobserver stateâ€ of the United Nations.
First, a word on what this means. The Palestinians already have â€œobserverâ€ status at the UN, but this gives them a delegation in New York and not much else. Upgrading this by one notch to â€œobserver stateâ€ â€“ the same status as the Vatican â€“ would give them access to the UNâ€™s agencies and, crucially, the right to apply for membership of the International Criminal Court (ICC). They could, in theory, use this position to get the ICC to investigate Israel for war crimes. In the words of one Israeli diplomat, the aim would be to open a â€œnew arena against Israel in international foraâ€.
So this is not some technical or symbolic change: it is potentially a big deal. Abbas has been in deep political trouble more or less from the moment he succeeded Yasser Arafat in 2004. On his watch, the Palestinian national movement has broken in half, with Hamas seizing Gaza and Abbas reduced to administering enclaves of the West Bank.
Meanwhile, his Palestinian Authority lives a hand-to-mouth existence, permanently on the verge of bankruptcy. When the latest round of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took place in Gaza, Abbas was nothing more than a bystander. So he badly needs to recapture the initiative â€“ and the UN application is his chosen method.
To add to its attraction, this move also allows the Palestinians to create a big headache for other countries. When you have been the underdog of the international system for generations, it must be deeply satisfying to be able to run other people ragged for a change. To show what I mean by this, consider the contrasting cases of Britain and France. Both support the principle of Palestinian statehood. As such, they should have no problem with backing Abbas and voting to upgrade the Palestinian position at the UN. And Paris has no such difficulty: on Tuesday, Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, duly announced that his government will vote in favour of the Palestinian application.
And Britain? Well, this is where things get complicated. On the one hand, Britain has the same position as France on Palestinian statehood, so in theory London should simply vote in favour. But America is adamantly opposed to Abbasâ€™s move â€“ and Britain is deeply unwilling to break with its closest ally. So the Palestinian application neatly impales London on the horns of a dilemma. Vote in favour and break with the Americans? Or vote against and ignore the logic of Britainâ€™s own position on Palestinian statehood?
So whatâ€™s the answer? Diplomats are paid to get around conundrums of this kind and William Hague has duly come up with a classic formula. Yes, Britain will support the Palestinian application, but only under certain conditions. First and foremost, he has asked Abbas to refrain from trying to join the ICC. In other words, the Palestinians must not open the door that most worries Israel and the US. Will Abbas meet Londonâ€™s conditions? Britainâ€™s support in the UN would certainly be a prize â€“ particularly as it would have the effect of isolating the Americans â€“ but dropping the idea of being able to join the ICC would be a big concession. One Israeli official told me he would be very surprised if Abbas made this move.
And thatâ€™s why Hagueâ€™s formula might just get him off the hook. By offering to support the Palestinian application, he abides by the logic of Britainâ€™s policy. By setting tough conditions that Abbas is unlikely to meet, Hague might avoid following through and breaking with the Americans. If Abbas sticks to his guns and ignores Hagueâ€™s conditions, then Britain could decently abstain on Thursday. Such is the art of diplomacy.