By asking for recognition at the U.N. while scrupulously avoiding violence, the Palestinians are, finally, pursuing an intelligent foreign policy that has the prospect of isolating their adversary and bringing international opinion on their side. If recognition as a state is achieved, the whole international context of the struggle shifts and the Israeli occupation becomes starkly anomalous. If the bid fails, public opinion will shift in the Palestinians' favor and greater pressure will be placed on the U.S. and Israel to seek resolution on statehood. This is why Israel is fuming and Washington is frantically trying to divert attention back to the stalled peace process. Absent this move by the Palestinians, the U.S. would not even be talking about the topic. Now it dominates the international agenda.
The U.S. response has been reactive and hapless, as it was in the Arab Spring. President Obama's political position is relatively weak, and his mild effort to pressure Israel to halt settlement expansion was resoundingly defeated. In fact, Israel this week approved plans to built more than 1,000 housing units in East Jerusalem despite pleas from U.S. and European diplomats. The political strength of Israel's supporters in the U.S. ensures that there will be no political daylight between U.S. policy and that of the sitting Israeli prime minister. This is especially true if Republicans turn support for Israel into a partisan issue.
If the U.S. were more concerned with peace in the Middle East (and in protecting its interests) than with domestic politics, it would support the Palestinian bid for statehood. If the Palestinians see that nonviolent strategies can produce real results, and the Israelis face reality that despite the lull in terrorist attacks there is a growing price to be paid for continued occupation, the increasingly untenable stalemate will be one step closer to resolution.
Barbara F. Walter is a professor of political science in the Graduate School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at UC San Diego. Andrew Kydd is an associate professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.