Mahmoud Abbas's High-Stakes UN Gamble
It’s easy to see who won the great debate that captivated the United Nations last week. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas made an eloquent case that after twenty years of a futile “peace process,” the time had come to end Israel’s occupation and for the UN to admit his country as a full member state.
Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu called for peace talks “without preconditions”—only to inject such preconditions (like the PA recognizing Israel’s “Jewish character”) that would make talks a nonstarter. Abbas was received rapturously; Netanyahu, coolly.
But the villain was Barack Obama, at least for those peoples in a region where Israel’s occupation is becoming the permafrost on the Arab Spring. The United States had long made it clear it would veto any Palestinian bid for full membership. But President Obama didn’t just rehearse Israeli arguments against the move; he adopted Israel’s narrative on the conflict. “Let’s be honest: Israel is surrounded by neighbors that have waged repeated wars against it,” he said.
Obama made no mention of the occupation, Jewish settlements or even that, since 2002, those neighbors have offered Israel a full peace in return for a full withdrawal from occupied Arab land. It was the most pro-Israeli speech ever made by a US president at the UN, said a veteran Jewish American commentator. It’s “the reason we are going to the UN,” seethed Palestinian delegate Hanan Ashrawi.
The task there is herculean. The PA faces obstruction not only from Washington but from supposed allies like the European Union, the UN and even Russia, the three other members of the so-called Quartet. No sooner had Abbas submitted his bid to the Security Council than all four united to contain it, alarmed that a US veto would inflame anti-Western passions across the Middle East. The Quartet called for the two sides to resume negotiations in a month and reach a peace agreement in a year.
That proposal has been tried in the past. It will tank this time too. Abbas says there can be no return to talks unless they are accompanied by a freeze on settlement-building and are based on the 1967 armistice lines as the border between Israel and a future Palestinian state. The Quartet statement specifies neither.
As of now, six of the Security Council’s fifteen members are backing the PA’s bid. It needs nine to force a vote. If it fails to get a vote, that would suit the United States and, it seems, the Quartet.
Abbas’s dilemma is acute. If he accepts the Quartet’s terms, he would undo all the kudos he has gained for his refusal to bend under US pressure. But if he rejects them, he risks alienating the EU, the UN and Russia, the powers he thinks are needed as a counterweight to Washington’s pro-Israel bias. This dilemma exposes the weakness at the heart of the UN gambit.
There have been two camps behind the UN bid in the PA leadership. Both agreed that for domestic reasons, the Obama administration will not be able to broker even partially fair negotiations this side of the 2012 presidential elections. But one camp, led by Abbas, believes the US abdication could be offset by upgrading Palestine’s status at the UN and internationalizing the negotiations to include the EU, the UN and Russia. The aim was never to end Oslo’s model of bilateralism per se but to freight it with more favorable conditions.
The other camp says Oslo is dead, and argues that an upgrade in UN status—either as a full member or the lesser non-member observer state—would strengthen the PA legally and politically as a “state under occupation.” It may even allow for prosecution of Israel at the International Criminal Court.
The problem is that both camps are reliant on others to further their diplomacy. And currently they are up against a US-EU bloc with two aims. The main one is to spare the United States the shame of a veto at the Security Council. But another is to slow Palestine’s becoming a non-member observer state at the General Assembly, a move the Quartet believes could end all hope of negotiations and trigger Israeli-US sanctions against the PA.
There are other flaws in the PA’s strategy. Abbas received a rousing welcome when he returned to Ramallah. But the largely stage-managed rallies there contrasted poorly with the minuscule gatherings in support of the UN bid in occupied East Jerusalem, among Palestinian citizens of Israel and in the diaspora, let alone the zero demonstrations in Hamas-ruled Gaza. This is testimony of the PA’s failure to ground its UN strategy in a genuine national consensus.
Abbas also said the UN bid was “the Palestinian spring.” Yet in New York he paid only lip service to those democratic movements and states most associated with the Arab uprisings. When Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed the UN, not a single Palestinian delegate was present.
Erdogan has been the regional leader who has made Palestinian independence a cornerstone of a new Middle East. Used correctly—by inscribing the Palestinian narrative of self-determination in the Arab narrative of freedom—the Arab uprisings could be marshaled by the PA as a powerful counterweight to the forces facing them at the UN, especially since the only reason the Quartet has become engaged, admitted one EU diplomat, is out of fear that “the Israel-Palestine conflict could become an issue on the Arab street.”
Time will tell whether Abbas turns to the region to bolster the UN bid or remains ensnared by it. By temperament he prefers diplomacy to revolutionary change. Last week’s defiance of US power may have been his finest hour in the eyes of his people, but it also marked the failure of an Oslo model he owned for more than eighteen years. “I don’t know what to do when I return,” he confided to a friend in New York.
Another Palestinian official was even blunter about the absence of a Palestinian strategy. What comes after September, he was asked. “October,” he said.