Reluctant Revolutionary Abbas Urges Palestinian Street Protests to Back U.N. Statehood Bid

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reacts during a Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) central committee meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah July 27, 2011. (Photo: Mohamad Torokman / Reuters)

The biggest problem on the desk of Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is a protest movement — not of Palestinians, but of young Israelis, who have poured onto the streets in their tens of thousands demanding that their government  resolve a growing housing crisis. Sure, the Obama Administration has failed in its effort on Israel’s behalf to stop the Palestinians taking their case for statehood to the United Nations in September. And yes, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has called on his own people to mount “Arab Spring” type peaceful demonstrations in support of that effort. But Netanyahu knows that, at least for now, he has little to fear from a Palestinian adversary (let’s not kid ourselves with the “partner” shtick) caught between competing instincts.

Abbas is hardly in the habit of encouraging demonstrations, after all, often insisting that “negotiation, negotiation, only negotiation” is the sole viable option available to pursue Palestinian national goals. But while his longstanding critique of violence as a dead-end strategy that strengthens Israel’s hand may now be widely shared among Palestinian leaders (even some within Hamas), a lot fewer share his faith that U.S.-mediated talks with Israel will yield Palestinian rights — a faith increasingly difficult to sustain in the face of two decades of failure, and the Obama Administration’s readiness to tie itself to the demands of a hardline Israeli government.

Reluctant revolutionary though he may be, Abbas has, however, come under pressure by calls from more popular leaders in his own movement, such as the imprisoned Marwan Barghouti, for Palestinians “to peacefully march in their millions” to demand their rights when the U.N. General Assembly  meets in September. 

Barghouti and others in Fatah believe that negotiations have failed to produce a credible outcome because of the vast imbalance of power between the two sides, and Washington’s explicit bias in Israel’s favor. They believe that the Palestinians need to create leverage to make up for that imbalance of power, and  that non-violent mass protest in the spirit of the Arab Spring will generate effective pressure on Israel that will even up the odds at the negotiating table. The Palestinians have to be able to offer something the Israelis want in order to persuade them to concede to a credible two-state deal, the reasoning goes, and Abbas’ strategy up to now has failed to provide that vital ingredient.

But Abbas’ endorsement of mass protest will be widely seen as half-hearted, because everything else about his strategy suggests that even the decision to go to the U.N. itself has been largely a (failed) gambit to extract more concessions from the U.S. and Israel. Misgivings about breaking with Washington appear likely to whittle down the Palestinians’ U.N. initiative from an application for membership in recognition of statehood — which Washington would veto at the Security Council — to simply seeking an upgrade to its status in the international body to that of a non-member state, like the Vatican. The latter option requires only a vote in the General Assembly, where there are no vetoes and the Palestinians can realistically expect more than two thirds’ support.

Abbas remains reluctant to clash head-on with Washington by tempting its veto in the Security Council. For the same reason, he  appears to have backed off implementing an agreement with Hamas to create a unity government — fiercely opposed by the U.S. — that would put Gaza under the same authority as the West Bank. But that has simply allowed Israel to scoff that Abbas can’t even speak on behalf of Gaza: “On behalf of whom will you present a resolution in September, Abbas or Hamas?” Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Ron Prosor derisively asked PLO representative Riyad Mansour in Tuesday’s Security Council debate on the issue.

Having thrown in his lot with Washington two decades ago, Abbas appears preternaturally reluctant to move the Palestinian strategy out of the U.S. orbit, still hoping — despite the overwhelming body of evidence to the contrary — that staying in Washington’s good books will earn him a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

So, if he wants protest action, Abbas wants it simply to serve as a backdrop for his diplomatic campaign, in the way that U.S. campaign activists wave placards supporting their candidates for the cameras. But the problem with street demonstrations is not simply the risk that they turn violent when the Israelis inevitably take repressive action to stop them; it’s also that they empower ordinary Palestinians, who may not follow Abbas’ script and go home when he decides it’s time to go back to the negotiating table. Statehood per se is not the primary issue in the minds of most Palestinians in the West Bank, and a new movement of protest to challenge the ongoing and previous encroachment of Israeli settlements, the restrictions on freedom of movement and other basic demands for Palestinian rights may not be easily constrained by the needs of a negotiation strategy in which most Palestinians (and Israelis) have little faith.  And if a protest movement developed any momentum, it would inevitably put ordinary Palestinians on a collision course with the Palestinian Authority itself, whose West Bank security forces have functioned to protect Israel, whether from Hamas attacks or from street protests. Or, as U.S. General Keith Dayton who nurtured that force warned two years ago, it could create a breakdown within those forces who have been willing to act against other Palestinians only on the understanding that they’re protecting an imminent state — if that state failed to emerge by 2011, he warned, Palestinian security men might balk at being seen as Israel’s enforcers.

It’s obvious to Abbas as much as to the Israelis and Americans that a U.N. General Assembly vote can’t create a Palestinian state and end Israel’s occupation of the 1967 territories on which it would be based. So the real question is what happens the day after. Abbas seems to incline to a resumption of business as usual, seeking to resume talks on the basis of international backing for statehood based on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. But the Palestinian Authority president is caught between a U.S.-based negotiation strategy whose failure can no longer be denied, and a popular-pressure that takes matters increasingly out of his own hands. Nobody can seriously envision the Palestinian Authority president as the leader of a campaign of mass action to challenge Israeli control on the ground in the West Bank. Indeed, if Palestinians there take up his invitation to protest in any significant numbers, the resulting momentum may in fact signal Abbas’ own political swan song.