The drama over the Palestinians’ bid for U.N. recognition is still unfolding, but President Mahmoud Abbas appears to have won new respect at home for standing up to the United States and moving their decades-long quest for statehood back to the center of the world stage.
Recognition of Palestine — even in a possible watered-down form, since full U.N. membership is blocked by a certain U.S. veto — won’t bring the Palestinians true independence anytime soon. It might not even be enough to improve their hoped-for leverage in future border talks with Israel.
But despite such uncertainties and the risk of a serious rift with Washington, Abbas and his aides say they had to try to break the diplomatic impasse of recent years with a bold move.
Abbas was losing domestic credibility — as well as political ground against militant rival Hamas — by sticking to the old formula of U.S.-brokered negotiations with Israel.
Israelis and Palestinians tend to blame the other side for the failure to reach a deal. Despite several far-reaching efforts, gaps could ultimately not be bridged, and Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank continues.
And the Arab Spring — a wave of anti-government protests sweeping the region since the start of the year — has made it more difficult for the Palestinian leadership to appear to accept the status quo.
“In the revolutionary atmosphere of the region, when the Palestinian leadership is unable to deliver anything, they have to be worried about their public standing,” said Ghassan Khatib, spokesman for Abbas’ West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. “With this approach (of seeking U.N. recognition), I think it will a little bit defuse public pressure.”
A poll published this week yielded stunning support for Abbas’ gambit, suggesting he had tapped into a hunger for taking a stand.
The poll of 1,200 Palestinians indicated that more than 80 percent support the bid to win U.N. recognition for a Palestinian state encompassing the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in 1967.
That backing comes despite widespread expectations of greater hardships as a result, including a possible cut in U.S. aid. Last week’s survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, with an error margin of 3 percentage points, also cited a five-point increase, to 59 percent, in Abbas’ popularity in the past three months.
Abbas — who never enjoyed the crowd appeal of his late predecessor, Yasser Arafat — might now also be better able to deflect claims by Hamas militants that he has been serving the interests of the West at the expense of Palestinian aspirations.
Such charges might have stuck more easily had Abbas not held his stance. Palestinians seem angry and even surprised at the support by President Barack Obama’s administration for Israel at the United Nations.
On Thursday, several dozen protesters held up anti-Obama banners outside Abbas’ government compound. A day earlier, a masked youth burned a U.S. flag at a pro-Abbas rally.
Abbas will formally request U.N. membership for Palestine on Friday in a speech to the General Assembly, despite “great pressure” from the United States and others, said a senior aide, Nabil Abu Rdeneh. Palestinian officials say they believe Obama is siding with Israel at the U.N. largely because of domestic considerations as he seeks re-election next year.
Full membership can only be bestowed by the U.N. Security Council, where Abbas’ quest is sure to be derailed, either by failing to get the required support of at least nine of 15 members or — if a necessary majority is obtained — by a U.S. veto.
It’s unclear why Abbas didn’t turn directly to the General Assembly, where the Palestinians enjoy broad support and the U.S. has no veto. The General Assembly could make Palestine a “nonmember observer state” — a lesser option but one that was widely expected and seen as still valuable to the Palestinians because of the implicit recognition of the pre-1967 borders.
Some speculated that by turning to the Security Council, the Palestinians were trying to ramp up pressure on the Obama administration to try harder to create an acceptable negotiating framework; they want negotiations to be based on the pre-1967 frontiers and demand that Israel halt all settlement construction on occupied land.
The U.S. has said it would veto the Palestinian membership request in the Security Council — but it would clearly prefer to see the application either not be submitted or not get the required votes. A veto would hurt Washington’s image among Arabs, which had just recovered a bit because of its support for the region’s pro-democracy movements.
A Security Council vote could only be held after a committee review of the membership request, which could take weeks.
Abbas aides dismissed speculation that the Palestinians were willing to let the application languish in a committee as a way of giving the U.S. and other mediators more time to restart negotiations.
“The normal procedures should take place immediately,” Abu Rdeneh said. “Any delay is unacceptable.”
If the Palestinians suspect foot-dragging in the Security Council, they will consider their options, Abbas advisers said. This might include going to the General Assembly or dissolving the Palestinian Authority, the self-rule government established in the mid-1990s as part of interim agreements with Israel
Dissolving the Palestinian Authority and effectively stepping down has been Abbas’ doomsday weapon. It would spell the collapse of two decades of U.S. policy in the region and would force Israel, as occupying power, to assume responsibility for nearly 4 million Palestinians, a costly task now largely funded by the international community.
“Handing the keys to the Israeli side has become a very realistic option,” said Azzam Ahmed, a leader of Abbas’ Fatah movement.
This week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won strong backing from Obama for his position that a Palestinian state can only be created through negotiations.
Israel has complained that the true aim of the Palestinians’ U.N. bid is to isolate and delegitimize the Jewish state — a charge Abbas has denied.
Netanyahu — a longtime hard-liner who reluctantly accepted the idea of a Palestinian state last year — called again this week for direct talks. However, he has rejected the Palestinian demand that all settlement construction be halted while talks on the future of the territories are held. Netanyahu has also said Israel will keep east Jerusalem and significant chunks of the West Bank, citing concerns that any territory Israel relinquishes might be used to launch attacks on the Jewish state.
While Netanyahu is enjoying Washington’s backing at the U.N., he may soon face increased pressure from the U.S. and Europe to accept terms for negotiations that are acceptable to the Palestinians, said Moty Cristal, a former Israeli negotiator.
“The strategic goal of the Palestinians (at the U.N.) was to bring Israel to the negotiating table in a much weaker position,” Cristal said. “They will to some extent achieve this goal. Europe and the U.S. will say (to Israel), ‘we supported you in the U.N., therefore the payoff will be a clear negotiating process which will yield results.'”