Abbas at the United Nations a Game Changer? Maybe.

There was a potential game changer in Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas’ speech at the General Assembly – but it wasn’t in the words he said: that this marks the end of the 20-year-long U.S.-backed failed peace process, and the potential beginning of a whole new approach to Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy, one based on international law, human rights and equality for all.

No longer is the failed U.S.-controlled “peace process” the only diplomatic game in town. The Palestinian application for recognition as a full Member State of the United Nations places the diplomacy squarely where it has always belonged — in the UN, not in Washington. And while that may be weakened by Abbas’ seeming willingness to continue to engage in this long-failed process, there is at least the basis for rebuilding a new diplomatic basis different from the current approach that maintains Israel’s huge disparity power and accepts Israeli “red lines.” This could mean something really new – diplomacy grounded in international law and human rights that ends occupation, ensures the right of refugees to return to their homes, and replaces apartheid with equality for all.

None of this, of course, is certain. Diplomacy is far more about political will and political power than it is about abstract rules; relying on the UN as both venue and player in a new process makes some new results possible — it doesn’t make them inevitable. Reality will require a huge level of new political will, certainly from some countries willing to back the membership/statehood bid, and most especially within the Palestinian diplomatic strategy and the Palestinian diplomats themselves.

Chairman Abbas’ speech was very carefully drafted to include the right of return of Palestinian refugees as a continuing right, and the continuing role of the Palestine Liberation Organization as the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. That’s important, because there has been much understandable fear among Palestinians, especially refugees and exiles, that the potential transfer of UN representation from the PLO to the “government” of a still-inchoate “state” could mean the disenfranchisement of refugees both in their representation at the UN, and in the need to fight for their right of return as guaranteed by UN Resolution 194.

Ensuring that a “government” of Palestine actually acts on that right, of course, remains a difficult challenge, but again it is a matter of political will, not UN rules. Any country — certainly the State of Palestine but also South Africa, or Micronesia, or indeed the United States — could take up the cause of Palestinian refugees’ right to return home in the UN forum in a serious way, demanding UN enforcement of Resolution 194. The problem of the right of return still being denied after so many years reflects U.S.-backed Israeli power, but the problem of it not being central to UN operations and high on the UN agenda reflects political will, not arbitrary rules. But, as Abbas finally acknowledged, “It is neither possible, nor practical, nor acceptable to return to conducting business as usual, as if everything is fine.”

So the challenge now is to make this new opportunity real, and to take maximum advantage of it, not to let it dissolve into endless bureaucracy. There is a serious danger that the UN Security Council, rather than moving to schedule a rapid vote with its inevitable US veto, will instead move to create a committee, to launch an investigation, to commission a report… and otherwise move to simply bury the Palestinian application in the labyrinthine mumbo-jumbo of UN diplo-speak. The issue might not re-surface for months — perhaps not even until after the November 2012 U.S. election, which would of course mean President Obama would not face the international consequences of the veto he has promised for domestic political reasons.

It was perhaps especially important that Abbas referred directly to the nonviolent mobilization of Palestinians across the Occupied Palestinian Territory, praising the “popular peaceful resistance to the Israeli occupation and its settlement and apartheid policies and its construction of the racist annexation Wall” and described it directly as being “consistent with international humanitarian law and international conventions.” That recognition was significant, given that the initiative for the widespread nonviolent protest movement in the Territory was created by and continues to gain most of its support from mobilized civil society, not from the officials of the Palestinian Authority.

And while he didn’t mention the word “BDS” — the Palestinian civil society call for “boycott, divestment and sanctions” that shapes much of the international mobilization in support of international law and human rights in Palestine — Abbas clearly was including the global movement for nonviolent pressure on Israel in his reference to that movement’s “support of peace activists from Israel and around the world, reflecting an impressive, inspiring and courageous example of the strength of this defenseless people, armed only with their dreams, courage, hope and slogans in the face of bullets, tanks, tear gas and bulldozers.” The reference to bulldozers as part of the Israeli war machine was particularly powerful, both because of the centrality of the boycott and divestment campaigns against Caterpillar across the U.S., and especially because of the worldwide outrage over the killing of Rachel Corrie, the young American peace activist killed in Gaza in 2003 while protecting a Palestinian family’s home, by an Israeli soldier driving a giant D-9 Caterpillar bulldozer.

At the end of the day, a speech is only a speech, an application for membership is only a piece of paper. But these actions set the stage for some possibilities that did not exist before. Certainly dangers continue. The head of the PLO was greeted with a standing ovation from at least part of the General Assembly when he said that “after 63 years of suffering of the ongoing Nakba: Enough. Enough. Enough. It is time for the Palestinian people to gain their freedom and independence.”

Maybe he’ll set a deadline, and maybe some governments will take seriously their obligation to protect an occupied population suffering under decades of occupation, apartheid and dispossession. Maybe, just maybe, this will mark the beginning of a different approach to achieving Palestinian rights and equality — with the world, not the U.S., as the “honest broker.” Twenty years of a U.S.-controlled process designed to maintain Israeli power and privilege is over — it’s enough. Now the challenge remains to create a new, UN-based process grounded in international law, equality and human rights — for all.

Phyllis Bennis is a Fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies; her books include “Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer” and “Calling the Shots: How Washington Dominates Today’s UN.”