Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas says he will submit his formal request for Palestinian statehood and U.N. membership on Friday, immediately after addressing the General Assembly.
This has already touched off intense diplomatic wrangling, and even more is expected in the weeks and months that follow.
"I don't remember any event in the last 25 to 30 years where it was so difficult to predict what will happen," says Yoram Peri, director of the University of Maryland Institute for Israel Studies.
The United States says it will block the Palestinian statehood bid in the Security Council. Then the Palestinians could go to the General Assembly and win overwhelming support for the status of "non-member state observer." But even if this happens, it could lead to many twists and turns.
"It's uncharted territory," says Scott Lasensky, a senior research associate at the U.S. Institute of Peace. "There's no manual that we can all open the day after that can tell us precisely what this means."
Security Council Action
The road to statehood recognition runs through the Security Council. The Palestinians must submit a letter stating their willingness to uphold and abide by the U.N. charter to the secretary-general, who then turns the matter over to the Security Council.
The Palestinians would then have to win at least nine of the 15 Security Council votes, including the support of all five permanent members (U.S., Russia, China, Britain and France).
The Obama administration has made it clear it will block the bid. The question is whether it will do so immediately, or drag out the process. The Palestinian matter has to be formally taken up by a Security Council committee, which doesn't have to report its recommendations until 35 days before the next meeting of the General Assembly — nearly a year from now.
Peri, who served as an adviser to the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, says that pressure from Arab nations could keep the U.S. from dragging the process out that long.
But a delay is certainly possible. "I think the U.S. would like, certainly, to delay this while all the other heads of state are in town," says Thomas Weiss, a City University of New York political scientist and expert on the U.N.
The General Assembly
Once the matter is before the Security Council, the General Assembly cannot address it until the council resolves it, one way or the other.
That's why some say the Palestinian Authority may shift its strategy at the last minute and appeal directly to the General Assembly instead. "It's not clear that they're going to the Security Council first," says Diana Buttu, a former adviser to Abbas and now a fellow in government and law at Harvard University.
The Palestinians can't receive full statehood recognition from the General Assembly, but they can get an upgrade. They currently have a permanent mission and observer status at the U.N. With a two-thirds vote in favor, the General Assembly could bump up the Palestinians to non-member state observer.
The Palestinians could expect overwhelming support. The U.S. and Israel would be expected to vote against the plan, along with a handful of smaller countries heavily dependent on the U.S. Some European nations have also expressed skepticism about the Palestinian approach.
If the Palestinians prevail in the General Assembly, they would have the same status that the Vatican has now and Switzerland had until a few years ago.
Since Palestinians already have U.N. observer status, the change will mostly be symbolic. But — depending on the language of the resolution — Palestine may gain access to the U.N. agencies, including the International Court of Justice.
That's something Israel is worried about. Admission to the U.N. would "pave the way for us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice," Abbas wrote in The New York Times in May.
Some think the Palestinians will pay a high price for their U.N. strategy. The U.S. provides more than $500 million in annual support to the Palestinian Authority.
But in July, the House voted 407 to 6 in favor of a resolution to suspend such payments if the Palestinians pushed a statehood vote at the U.N. The Senate passed similar language by a similar margin.
Still, Congress is unlikely to cut off funding altogether, predicts Peri, the former Israeli adviser. And other worst-case scenarios that have been spun out may not come to pass, either.
"A lot of what's been discussed and even threatened by various parties is not likely to be realized," says Lasensky, the U.S. Institute of Peace scholar. "It's all part of the brinksmanship leading up to the Palestinian move."