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Palestinian bid at U.N. distracts from the real crisis

By Aaron David Miller, Special to CNN
updated 5:54 AM EDT, Wed September 21, 2011
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech announcing Palestinian bid for U.N. membership.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas delivers a speech announcing Palestinian bid for U.N. membership.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Aaron David Miller: Palestinian bid for statehood is overblown event that masks the real crisis
  • Worry is Palestinian status change will cause new series of problems in peace process
  • But he says real crisis is there's no conflict-ending agreement between Israel and Palestinians
  • Miller: Without real leadership, prospect of two-state solution moves ever further out of reach

Editor's note: Aaron David Miller is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and served as a Middle East negotiator in Democratic and Republican administrations. His new book "Can America Have Another Great President?" will be published by Bantam Books in 2012.

(CNN) -- Rarely has so much time, energy and attention been devoted to an issue less consequential than this month's Palestinian bid for statehood at the U.N.—an episode characterized by hyperbole and muddled thinking on the part of just about everyone.

The real crisis -- the one that is really worth worrying about -- is the improbability of a conflict-ending agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

For some time now, this September has come to represent not a month or unit of time in the calendar year, but a prospective catastrophe, an event of such epic proportion that it has consumed those involved in the peace process in Washington, Ramallah, Jerusalem, as well as in many world capitals.

The impending "crisis" seems to go something like this: Palestinians will seek U.N. membership through the U.N. Security Council or try to upgrade their status through the U.N. General Assembly. That campaign will set into motion a series of consequences which range from a U.S. veto (if it's the Security Council), thereby inflaming the entire Arab world in a fiery frenzy. Iran's position would be strengthened, America's weakened further.

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The alternative, which the U.S. cannot block, would be a General Assembly resolution, which upgrades the PLO's status from a non-member entity to a non-member state. This would in turn give the Palestinians access to the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court, where they would launch a campaign to delegitimize Israel. This would force Congress to cut off aid to the Palestinians and spark a crisis with the Obama administration.

And there's more. The Palestinian campaign at the U.N. in New York would raise the possibility of demonstrations among Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. Worst case, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians would march against the settlements and checkpoints, triggering the prospect of serious violence with the Israelis. Israel would then withhold badly needed tax revenues from Palestinians; Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation would be undermined and the entire structure of Palestinian Authority state-building, so successful during the past several years, might collapse.

Barring some last-minute U.S. or European efforts to convince the Palestinians to stand down, the U.N. initiative will go forward, most likely in the General Assembly. And there's no doubt that it will not be helpful to an already badly crippled peace process.

At the same time, Palestinians, Israelis, and Americans have clearly contributed to making a bad situation worse. The Palestinian Authority has oversold the impact of their U.N. initiative and laid the groundwork for deep disappointments among Palestinians in the territories. Israelis have over-hyped the threats and downsides of a U.N. initiative, and in doing so, have only convinced the Palestinians that they have good cards to play.

The Americans, frustrated by the failure of the peace process, have chosen to steer clear (at least until lately) of trying to work out some compromise. The president also does not need a fight with the Israelis now, certainly not over a U.N. initiative criticizing a close ally.

Whatever the outcome at the U.N. -- and it's unlikely to be Armageddon, as the sky-is-falling crowd believes -- the day after we will all confront the same dreary problem. Palestinians will be no closer to their state; the Israelis will be bitter about the U.N. action, the administration will be less willing than ever to risk anything to get negotiations under way.

Indeed, what's happening in New York is a symptom of the core problem, which many don't want to face: Right now, and I choose my words very carefully, there's no conflict-ending agreement possible between this Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority. There may be any number of other possibilities, including relaunching interminable negotiations, achieving an interim deal, or an agreement on borders and security. But if you're looking for a peace agreement that includes Jerusalem and refugees, forget about it.

And that's the real issue that should worry everyone. In an enlightened parallel universe (in a galaxy far, far away), Americans, Israelis and the Palestinians would be taking risks and acting wisely and boldly. But we don't live in such a universe.

And so we wait and drift and we watch the forces of history gathering to overwhelm the forces of diplomacy. Without real leadership, slowly but surely the prospects and possibilities for a two-state solution to the problem of the much-too-promised land are being washed away. And Israelis, Palestinians -- and the rest of us -- will suffer the consequences.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Aaron David Miller.

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