Keeping Mahmoud Abbas at the negotiating table should be a priority for the U.S. Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Keeping Mahmoud Abbas at the negotiating table should be a priority for the U.S. Photographer: Alex Wong/Getty Images

By suddenly turning to the United Nations for support, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has rebuffed the U.S.'s terms for brokering peace talks with Israel. But Secretary of State John Kerry is right to be cautious in his response: It isn't in anyone's interest to respond with punitive actions that would further upend the negotiations. Let's hope Israel and the U.S. Congress agree.

Israel, backed by the U.S., argues that by pursuing membership in 15 UN and international conventions, Abbas has violated the notion that the two sides should negotiate a settlement directly, rather than each taking unilateral steps to predetermine the outcome. The U.S. and Israel raised the same objection in 2012 when Abbas successfully pushed the UN to admit Palestine as a nonmember observer state.

This position is unfortunate. After all, Israel, even while negotiating with the Palestinians, regularly expands its civilian settlements in the West Bank, thereby affecting the size and shape of a future Palestinian state. This is the equivalent of dividing a pie while taking a few bites along the way.

What's more, Palestinian membership in a dozen or so international conventions won't change anything substantial. Sure, the Palestinians will use their position to annoy Israel diplomatically; they've already done so through their membership in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.

But it isn't realistic to think this is enough to pressure Israel to make otherwise unlikely concessions. Israeli governments have become inured to opprobrium emanating from the UN. "UM shmum" goes a popular rhyme, playing on the Hebrew pronunciation of "UN" and a prefix signifying dismissal.

Abbas was careful not to apply for admission to the one body that would make a difference: the International Criminal Court. If Palestine joins the ICC or seeks its jurisdiction, the Israeli officials responsible for expanding settlements would be vulnerable to prosecution for war crimes. The ICC's statute prohibits the "transfer, directly or indirectly, by the occupying power of parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies."

Israel will be tempted to punish Abbas anyway. Its most obvious method would be to withhold customs revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian Authority. In the U.S., there will be pressure in Congress to cut the $440 million in aid budgeted for the authority this year.

Weakening Abbas and his relatively moderate Fatah party would only strengthen the opposition, the militant Hamas, which supports the destruction of Israel. And for what? To send a message that the Palestinians shouldn't get in line with international accords such as the Geneva Conventions and the United Nations Convention Against Corruption?

The Israelis have everything the Palestinians don't -- a real state, a powerful military, a powerful ally (the U.S.), a strong economy -- as well as control over Palestinian land, airspace, borders and resources.

Which is why the UN venture is something of a sideshow. If the Palestinians ever want an independent homeland, they will have to win over the Israelis by making realistic demands and meeting Israel's reasonable security requirements. The UN can't make Palestine real. Fortunately, a solid majority of Israelis also want to see the creation of a Palestinian state through negotiations, as does the U.S. The responses to Abbas's UN move should preserve the promise of such talks.

To contact the senior editor responsible for Bloomberg View's editorials: David Shipley at davidshipley@bloomberg.net.