Fevered brinkmanship is the order of the day at the UN in New York ahead of Palestine's expected application to be recognised as an independent state. If asked, the UN General Assembly will almost certainly vote Yes. Meanwhile, Israel, and its allies in the White House, are engaged in frantic behind-the-scenes deal-making to try to scupper a similar vote by the more powerful UN Security Council. Were that to happen, the US would be forced to veto the move, which would expose the extent to which Israel depends on its support.
Israel has legitimate concerns about its peaceful co-existence with Palestinians who refuse to accept it as the Jewish people's homeland. But it is too strong to claim that the peace process will be damaged by Palestinian moves to win international recognition. No serious peace negotiations are going on, nor have they for two decades, at least in part because of Israeli delaying tactics and the continued building of illegal settlements. Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has pursued an approach obstructive almost to the point of provocation, with little effort to encourage the Palestinians to come to the negotiating table.
The Palestinians have made significant progress. The IMF, World Bank and UN have declared the assiduously-built infrastructure is at last fit for an independent state. But there is considerable pressure to drop the bid. Israel is "reserving the right to respond" – threatening to annex the West Bank or to withhold the tax and tariff funds that Israel collects on the Palestinians' behalf. As such funds represent two-thirds of the Palestinian budget, without them the Palestinian Authority would effectively be paralysed. There have also been rumblings that the US Congress might axe its annual $500m in aid.
These are dangerous times, whichever course the key players pursue. If the Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, does not go ahead with the application at the UN on Friday, demonstrations in support of the initiative could turn into a new intifada of violent confrontation with Israel.
It is a mood that could easily spread across a region made newly sensitive to calls for self-determination by the revolutions of the Arab Spring. To abandon the initiative now could also provoke uproar among Muslims worldwide, threaten regional stability and even increase the risk of another war. And there are already signs of wider ramifications, with hints of anti-American defiance from Saudi Arabia as the long-time Washington ally this week offered the Palestinian Authority $200m to ease its liquidity problems.
With so much at stake, Palestinian and American diplomats are working determinedly to enlist the nine votes each side needs in the Security Council. The Palestinian view is that forcing the US to exercise its veto would be a moral victory. Washington hopes to enlist enough dissenters that it will not be necessary. At present China, Russia, France, Lebanon, South Africa, Gabon, Brazil and India are expected to vote Yes. The US has won over only Germany and a big US-aid recipient, Colombia. Portugal, Nigeria and Bosnia-Herzegovina remain undecided. Britain could be left with the casting vote.
Until now the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, has remained largely ambivalent on the issue. He does not want to abandon our US allies, but he knows an anti-Palestinian vote will not sit well with British voters' sense of fair play. Ultimately, the Israel/Palestine problem will only be ended by direct negotiations between the two parties concerned. But with a recognised Palestinian state, such negotiations would be between more equal parties. US politicians have limited freedom of action on the issue. Britain should cast its vote in support of Palestine.