Mahmoud Abbas finds a way to scare Israel

After decades of futility, the Palestinian cause may finally have something resembling a victory in its sights

Israeli politician Abba Eban said in 2002 that the Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. For the past nine years of the interminable Israeli/Palestinian peace process, events have largely played out in support of this view. But a growing chorus of support at the United Nations for the recognition of a Palestinian state is evidence that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has learned from the failures of his predecessors and is now creating opportunities of his own, to the dismay of Israel and the United States.

In the 47 years the Palestine Liberation Organization has existed, it has used a combination of negotiations, armed resistance and terrorism to work towards its goals of self-determination and the right of return for Palestinian refugees. The campaign’s longevity attests to its lack of success.

President Abbas is now pursuing a new strategy. Instead of laying his demands at the door of Israel and the United States, he is making a two-pronged approach to the United Nations in order to shame a superpower and cast light on the groundswell of support for his cause amidst the developing world.

Abbas has announced his intention to submit an application for statehood on Friday to the United Nations Security Council based on 1967 borders—the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip. As official UN recognition would throw negotiations with Israel into disarray, the U.S. has promised to veto the application.

In the event of a veto, Abbas will turn to the UN General Assembly with an application for non-member observer status, (on par diplomatically with the Vatican), which does not require the blessing of the Security Council. The General Assembly is made up mostly of developing nations which sympathize with the Palestinians’ plight and is almost guaranteed to approve the request, giving Palestine access to a variety of UN agencies and committees along with entry to the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court.

It is a bold move, and not without its risks for all parties. For Abbas, the possibility of coming home to an energized and expectant population with little or nothing to show for his efforts could undermine his leadership and stoke instability and violence. Even his own prime minister–who has been working diligently to build the fundamental institutions of a future Palestinian state—disagrees with the UN bid on the grounds that the victory would be purely symbolic.

For Israel, the vote couldn’t come at a worse time. The fallout from last year’s bloody confrontation over Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza (which killed nine Turks) has turned Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan into an Arab nationalist firebrand who is now championing the Palestinian cause. More recently, the Arab Spring washing over the Middle East claimed Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak—formerly Israel’s most dependable regional ally—and threatens the stability of Syria, bringing the spectre of violence closer to two of the Jewish state’s borders. Indeed, the situation in Egypt has deteriorated to the point where Israel’s ambassador had to be evacuated from his Cairo office last week after it was set upon by a sledgehammer-wielding mob.

However, it is the Obama administration that is in the most difficult position. After setting high hopes with his 2009 Cairo address to the Muslim world, Obama has watched helplessly as the peace process ground to a halt. Israel has continued to build settlements in the West Bank, militants from Gaza have gone on a murderous rampage in southern Israel and a defiant Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stormed into Washington, D.C. and brusquely dismissed Obama’s attempt to re-start moribund peace talks.

Now, with populist uprisings spreading across the region, Obama has the unenviable task of quashing the aspirations of a people he has pledged to assist, knowing full well that the result will be diminished U.S. influence in the region and an opportunity for regional powers to assert their will. In addition, the U.S. Congress is threatening to cut off aid to the Palestinians as punishment for their UN gambit, leaving the door open for other donors seeking power and prestige to step in.

The most likely state to do so is Saudi Arabia, says Janice Stein, Director of the Munk School of Global Affairs in Toronto. “They’ve come out very strongly in favour of a bid at the UN. There is intense Saudi displeasure with the Obama administration because Obama sacrificed [former Egyptian President] Mubarak. And they consider that disloyal and unbecoming. So the Saudis have few reasons to hold back when it comes to opposing the U.S.”

Aside from pushing the word “Palestine” into diplomatic and media vernacular, Abbas’s efforts in the run-up to Friday’s vote are ultimately an effort to force a weak American government to leverage the Israelis, adds Stein.

“Again and again in his language, President Abbas has said ‘we do not seek a confrontation with Israel, we do not seek a confrontation with the U.S.’ This signals that he’s looking for meaningful negotiations and he expects the U.S. to exert an inordinate amount of pressure to make this happen in a short time.”

As of Tuesday, the pressure appears to working. Prime Minister Netanyahu has called for a fresh round of negotiations, and a group comprised of the European Union, the UN, the U.S. and Russia (known as the Quartet) is reportedly working on a framework for talks which would convince President Abbas to abandon his UN bid and return to the negotiating table.

“We don’t really know the details of the negotiations right now, but in the discussion of what the borders of an independent Palestinian state would be, apparently Prime Minister Netanyahu has agreed to language like the 1967 borders with some modifications,” says Stein. “What president Abbas wants is modifications that are equal in size and scope.”

After 47 years of blood, bombings and blockades failed to move the needle any closer to a viable two-state solution, the Palestinians seem to have finally discovered a peaceful way to seize the initiative. And as the Arab Spring continues to re-write the geopolitical landscape of the Eastern Mediterranean, it may be an increasingly isolated Israel that is now in danger of missing an opportunity.

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