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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Mahmoud Abbas finds a way to scare Israel

  1. This is a very very smart strategic move by Abbas. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect. The condition is ripe because of the Arab spring that brought popular sovereignty to middle east and at the same time the foremost desire of most Muslims to help the Palestinians who have suffered at the hands of Israelis to say the least. The Palestinian position is further enhanced because of recent Israeli-Egyptian conflict and more importantly the deterioration of the Turkish-Israeli alliance. Israel is really more isolated than ever in the region especially because of what happened with Turkey, its closest Muslim ally. But with a definite US veto, we shall see the fallout of American decision in the middle east. 

  2. The Arabs rejected the UN-sponsored two state solution in 1947. Jewish leaders accepted. Arabs promptly attacked their Jewish neighbours and lost. They attacked and lost again in 1967.
    Now Arabs demand statehood based on the 1947 division?

    … and now Hamas is involved. 

    There are no serious Arab partners for peace. 

    • 20 years from now, people may say:

      “The Israelis rejected the UN-sponsored two state solution in 2011. Arab leaders accepted. Israel promptly crushed Palestinian protesters and…”

      • … yeh, and Germany should get back land lost after defeat in 1945.

        • East Germany.

        • to Ottawa Centrist:
          East Germany, yes, but how about half of Poland?

      • … not to forget that the Palestinian National Covenant still denies Israel’s right to exist, and the Hamas Charter calls for an Islamic state in Palestine, in place of Israel and Arab palestinian territory.

        It’s clear Israel has no partners in peace unless the peace involves obliteration of Israel.

        • Yes you are right. The circumstances are very complicated. I believe both sides have committed violence that they shouldn’t have. 
          It’s very difficult to judge who is right or wrong. It’s a long historical issue. But one thing must be certain, both states deserve the right to nationhood and the right to exist. Abbas said himself that nationhood at a UN resolution is not a replacement for negotiations with Israel. Eventually, they have to work things out. It’s been a long time. I agree with Sarkozy’s proposal for a Palestinian upgrade to an obeserver-state status and a strict timetable for the two sides to reach an agreement.
          Looking from an outsider’s perspective, I appreciate the wisdom of this Palestinian move from a strategic point of view. It’s very very smart diplomacy. Sure it alienated the US and Israel (and maybe our Mr.Harper, lol), but the rest of the world including the French and the Germans, though reluctant, are somewhat supporting the Palestinians.

          • May be this way Abbas will prevent assasination by his own people, something Arafat was scared of.

        • You’ll never have peace with that attitude. At some point, if there is to be peace between enemies, they’re going to have to give up the grudge and make peace happen.

          It’s nonsense to say that most Palestinians don’t want peace and prosperity, and all we’ve done in the West is support the status quo that allows Hamas and organizations like them to control the agenda.

          Why would we let them do that again?

        • I note you neglect to mention the former chief rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef claiming that the Palestenians should “perish from the world”.

          I see your denial of a state and trump it with exhortations to genocide.

    • Quoting events from 45 to 65 years ago as proof of anything today is silly beyond belief.

      Hamas can never be taken down unless we support the pro-democratic forces within Palestine that oppose them.

    • While I realize that the ability to learn from the past might be beyond your experience, try to understand that other people do do it, and 60+ years is a lot of time for learning to happen in.

  3. Seems to me that as long as we continue to beggar the democratic forces in Palestine, we are in fact precluding their ability to wrest power from Hamas. Supporting parties within Palestine that are pro-democratic is our best way forward. It will rally public support in favour of Abbas and undermine Hamas.

    And frankly, if the Isrealis are STILL building settlements, then how can anyone reasonably conclude that they are negotiating in good faith? It beggars belief that an honest negotiation can take place in these circumstances.

    Enough of these so-called peace talks. Unless we are prepared to work with the pro-democratic and pro-peace forces within Palestine, they can never get the upperhand over Hamas. Which after years of watching this conflict, I’m beginning to think Israel is purposefully taking advantage of in the name of “reclaiming” their ancient holy land.

    It’s hard for me to see it otherwise anymore, and I once held the opposite position.

    • I totally agree with you. especially with your point about Israelis not negotiating in good faith with their continuous settlement-building.
      I’ve read a little bit on the history of this conflict. Back in the nineties you had good progress with two diplomatic and peace-loving Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Rabin and Arafat, respectively. Then radical Israelis killed Rabin, followed by the election of a right-wing Israeli government by Netanyahu, who personally is likely the most center of rightist elements in his party. His foreign minister, Lieberman is a vicious security hawk who just recently was advocating support for PKK, a terrorist organization to fight Turkey. Now Netanyahu we know have mountains of support within the Republican party in the Congress and a huge electoral base in American politics. It is very hard to conduct neutral and fair foreign policy when so much domestic politics and sentiments are mixed in it for Obama.

      • If Arafat was so peace-loving, why did he walked away from the offered deal – the best I believe the Palestinians can ever get – and started the intifada?
        PKK is a terrorist organization like Hamas – they want their country as a separate ethnic entity for themselves – the Kurds. By supporting Hamas, the Turkish president is just asking for trouble.

  4. “militants from Gaza have gone on a murderous rampage in southern Israel” ????

    Oh, you must be referring to ‘Operation Cast Lead’  where thousands of innocent Israelis died like dogs…

  5. This is a bunch of wishful thinking. To negotiate with the Israelis, the Palestinians must first show that they are capable of building a democratically elected and legitimate government that is able to speak for the majority of their people. At the moment the leadership of the Palestinians is divided between Hamas and Fatah. Abbas speaks only for Fatha and he has postponed and delayed scheduled elections for several years. We can only conclude that he is afraid of holding these elections because he knows Fatha would lose and that Hamas would win. Hamas completely rejects the idea of peace and negotiations. Under these conditions what is the point of speaking about the boundaries of an independent Palestinian state or about the other elements of a settlement? The Israelis control the guns, the land and the money. They have already made an offer to the Palestinians at the Clinton-Arafat-Barak camp david summit. This is a reasonable offer and it is about the best the Palestinians are ever going to see. Something very close to this will be the final settlement. The problem is for the parties to find a way to say yes to this solution. Until that happens, the long winter will continue.

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