At last, the Security Council equates Palestine and Israel

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The Independent Online

The latest United Nations Security Council resolution on the Middle East comes at one of the bleakest moments in the region's recent history. That the Security Council was moved to address the situation, however, is less surprising than either the content of the resolution or the identity of its chief sponsor. It is the first Security Council resolution to refer specifically to a Palestinian state, and it was drafted by the United States, whose absence from Middle East diplomacy has been all too evident since the Bush administration took office more than a year ago.

At its most basic, the resolution is an earnest of the US administration's intention to revive the peace process. It should add momentum to the return to the region of the US State Department's special envoy, Anthony Zinni, and the arrival in Israel of the US Vice President, Dick Cheney. But the resolution also reflects a positive shift in American opinion – for which, perversely, the intransigence of the Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, may be largely responsible.

The fact that the Bush administration felt able to back such a resolution, even with close Congressional elections pending, suggests that support for Palestinian statehood is no longer regarded as a big political risk. When the then First Lady, Hillary Clinton, said almost four years ago that a Palestinian state was probably in everyone's interests, she drew a torrent of hostile invective from her fellow Americans. When Mr Bush said – in the wake of the terrorist attacks of 11 September – that the US would accept a Palestinian state, the response from American opinion was muted and even approving.

Obscured by the start of military action in Afghanistan, what amounted to a dramatic change in policy from the White House received less than its due abroad. Enshrining the change in a UN resolution places it once again in the spotlight. It also shows the US administration making use of the international organisation it so recently scorned.

Better still, the initial responses from the Palestinians and Israel were hearteningly positive, even if each stressed the aspects it preferred. The Palestinians liked the reference to two states but played down the call for an immediate halt to the violence; Israel, the opposite. With the recent Saudi peace plan still on the table and complementary, in its call for Arab acceptance of Israel, to the new UN resolution, there is finally some room for diplomatic manoeuvre. The opportunity should be grasped at once.