It was always a foregone conclusion that the U.N. General Assembly would vote overwhelmingly in favour of upgrading Palestine’s status to non-member observer state. The 138 ‘yes’ votes to only nine opposed was not just a stark barometer of international sympathy for the Palestinian cause, but also of Israel's isolation, and the limits of U.S. pressure.
Among those against the upgrade were such heavyweights as the Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Nauru, Palau and Panama. The Czech Republic was the only European state in opposition - nothing short of a diplomatic disaster for Israel, given its strong relations with others on the continent such as Germany, Britain, the Netherlands and Poland.
So the vote was the easy bit. Now what? There are many sceptics on both sides who say this is a purely symbolic move that changes nothing on the ground. However, if it was as simple as that, there would not have been such ferocious American and Israeli lobbying. Whether the sceptics are proven right depends largely on what the Palestinian Authority does - if anything - with this bolstered legitimacy.
The upgrade enables the Palestinians to join various U.N. agencies, and most importantly, the International Criminal Court. It remains to be seen how many and which agencies they will join, and how beneficial these memberships will be.
However, it is the prospect of legal action against the occupation at the ICC that has most rattled Israel and its allies. Indeed, Britain said it would only support the upgrade if the Palestinians promised not to join the court. As such, its abstention can be seen as positive, a sign that this condition was rejected, for had the PA caved in this regard, it would have rendered the entire enterprise pointless.
Palestinian officials have, however, said that joining the ICC need not happen straight away. This is potentially a shrewd move. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said that he would be ready and willing to resume talks immediately after the UN vote. The implied threat of joining the ICC may be a means of twisting Israeli and American arms at the negotiating table.
However, it is unlikely that talks will even resume, let alone make progress, because Israel rejects Abbas’s insistence that it stop settlement expansion on Palestinian land prior to negotiations. Even if talks took place, they would be doomed to failure given Israel’s belligerence on all the final-status issues, particularly under a government that is described as the most extremist in Israel's history.
Abbas could then approach the ICC having shown the world that he had exhausted all other options. In a game of diplomatic chess, this is a possible check mate. No doubt the U.S. and Israel will do all they can to force the PA away from the court, but having raised so much hope and defied so much pressure thus far, it may not be able to withstand the popular backlash that would arise if it backed down.
(Sharif Nashashibi is a London-based writer and Arab commentator. @sharifnash.)