DURING five decades steeped in the Palestinian struggle, Mahmoud Abbas has enjoyed precious few moments of success. Yesterday, he was set to win a genuine diplomatic victory at the United Nations for a people who have become the perennial underdog of world affairs.
This will be all the sweeter because of the timing. Mr Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, chose to present his application on the 65th anniversary of the UN resolution of November 29, 1947, that partitioned the Holy Land between Jewish and Arab states, paving the way for Israel's birth.
Mr Abbas seized his opportunity to mobilise the countries that support the Palestinian cause. They are many and varied, but often powerless. None can remotely compete with the US and its solid backing for Israel. Yet in a forum as egalitarian as the General Assembly, where each country has one vote regardless of population or power, the numbers matter. Of the UN's 193 members, 132 already recognise a "state" of Palestine, so the outcome is not in doubt.
The symbolism of the Palestinians upgrading their status at the UN is unmistakable: for the first time, they will officially be known as an observer "state". But does this change anything of substance?
In the end, a real Palestinian state will only emerge if Mr Abbas or his successors can sign a peace agreement with Israel that resolves the vital questions at the heart of their struggle.
These can be summed up in four words: borders, settlers, refugees, Jerusalem. In simple terms, any agreement has to decide the borders of a Palestinian state; the fate of Jewish settlers in the occupied territories; the future of the Palestinian refugees; and – most intractable of all – the division of Jerusalem into two national capitals.
Yesterday's vote will not resolve these "core issues". On the contrary, Western diplomats fear that it could create another obstacle to serious peace talks, particularly if the Palestinians now use their enhanced status at the UN to begin a new campaign against Israel.
The Palestinians counter that their only aim is to make negotiations more likely to succeed by giving the "two-state solution" the impetus of UN approval. But they will not join any talks unless Israel stops expanding settlements in the occupied territories.
President Barack Obama must soon decide whether to make the quest for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement a priority of his second term. Is he prepared to invest time and diplomatic capital on a project with such slender hopes of success?
When it comes to weighing the chances of a real Palestinian state being born, Mr Obama's choice is far more important than last night's vote in the UN. (© Daily Telegraph, London)