Thwarted at the U.N., Is Palestinian Leader Abbas Headed Off Into the Sunset?

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Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (C) and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad (2nd L) attend prayers for Eid al-Adha in the West Bank city of Ramallah November 6, 2011. (Photo: Mohamad Torokman / Reuters)

President Mahmoud Abbas’ attempt to persuade the U.N. Security Council to admit a state of Palestine as a full member of the international body has, all too predictably, hit a wall. The technical U.N. committee to which the issue was referred , not surprisingly, failed to reach a consensus (because there’s no consensus among Council members). Even if a vote was held despite that disagreement, it’s unlikely that the Palestinians would achieve the nine ayes that would prompt the U.S. to kill the measure with a veto. Abbas’ aides have been forced to concede defeat.

Most of the international community supports the principle of Palestinian statehood on the 1967 lines — even the U.S. government supports it, although Abbas would be ill-advised to hold his breath waiting, as he has done for two decades, for Washington to deliver that outcome. And even many of those countries that continue — at Washington’s insistence — to mouth the mantra that the only way to get there is in talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu don’t believe that Israel will voluntarily yield to the international consensus on terms for a two-state solution. But it’s naive to imagine that governments cast their votes at the U.N. on the basis of  moral choices; more often than not,  U.N. votes  reflect the balance of power. As long as the U.S. was willing to campaign aggressively against them (it was, with Netanyahu marveling that President Obama “deserved a medal” for his speech scolding the Palestinians) and other key players saw no compelling reason to engage in a sustained diplomatic confrontation with Washington on the issue (none did), predicting the outcome didn’t exactly require clairvoyant powers.

France’s position is instructive: President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose mistrust of Netanyahu is now a matter of public record,  warned that France would have to abstain at the Security Council, but promised support for a Palestinian move in the General Assembly to upgrade their status to that of observer state. Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel who has twice clashed publicly with the Israeli leader over his settlement policy (and voted against the U.S. last February’s Security Council condemnation of ongoing settlements) also  made clear from the get-go that it would vote against admitting Palestine as a U.N. member state.

The subtext here is simple: A Palestinian state would be recognized on territory currently under Israeli occupation, which isn’t going to end as a result of a U.N. vote. But once the Security Council recognized Palestine as a member state, it would be obliged to act against the occupation of the territory of one member state by another. And that’s a responsibility even some of the Security Council members sympathetic to the Palestinians are not willing to take on. And absent any crisis situation that forces them to address it, they’d sooner pass — even if they know that their alternative of revived talks under the “Quartet” auspices is a hollow one in which neither side has any faith.

Sarkozy offered Abbas the alternative of strengthening the Palestinian position by going to the General Assembly, but Abbas demurred, insisting that it was all or nothing. The unmistakable answer to that question, is nothing.

As I wrote at the time

“Despite all the buildup, next week’s ‘showdown’ in New York could turn out to be a damp squib if the Palestinians approach the Security Council and, as is likely, get no immediate answer. On the other hand, getting an overwhelming majority of the General Assembly to recognize the contours of a Palestinian state as being based on the 1967 lines, with East Jerusalem as its capital, would strengthen the Palestinians’ hand in future negotiations with Israel, even if the Assembly cannot confer full U.N. membership. That would provide a significant counterbalance to the advantages the Israelis enjoy by having peace talks exclusively mediated by Washington, where Israel’s overwhelming advantage in domestic political support effectively precludes even-handedness.

“[Instead] Abbas is taking the largely symbolic route of applying for full membership, knowing that the outcome will be unfavorable but not having availed himself of an opportunity to expand Palestinian’ leverage in a battle to end the occupation. Indeed… the Security Council route is almost certain to leave the status quo untouched. Abbas will go back to his people and tell them he won a moral victory; Netanyahu will tell Israelis that he, in fact, was the moral victor, and reality on the ground in the West Bank will remain entirely unchanged.”

No matter, says Abbas aide Saeeb Erekat in the face of defeat, “if we fail we can try again and again and again.” That’s a blunt admission that Abbas and his circle lack a Plan B, or a serious strategy to challenge the occupation. They can keep trying the same thing “again and again and again”, but their own people will have stopped taking them seriously even before the international powers do.

Abbas’ long-term strategy had been, essentially, to rely on the U.S. to deliver a solution based on the 1967 borders. But two decades of disappointment, and a U.S. domestic political climate in which the Palestinians exist only to the extent that they pose a security threat to Israel, has shattered Abbas’ continued faith in Washington. That’s what took him to the U.N. over strenuous U.S. objections.  But appealing to the U.N. was never, in itself, going to change the reality of the occupation on the ground, even if it could be potentially reinforce a broader strategy to muster leverage against a status quo that currently has no down-side for the Israelis.

This may be terrifically unfair, from a Palestinian point of view, but as former U.S. Mideast negotiator Robert Malley and Hassan Agha, a former adviser to the Palestinian leadership, warned Palestinian leaders earlier this year, “history is not in the habit of rewarding good behavior; it is a struggle, not a beauty contest.”

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict only gets any attention when it’s in a state of crisis, and as soon as the immediate crisis is deferred — as happened with the UN membership bid in September — it’s routinely ignored.  The U.S. has essentially put the Palestinians on notice that when they annoy Israel, particularly in an election year, they shouldn’t expect any help from Washington. That message was underlined last week when the Palestinians won recognition as a member of UNESCO, the UN cultural body, prompting the U.S. to withdraw its funding for the organization.

It’s not clear whether Abbas will now follow Sarkozy’s suggestion and take matters to the General Assembly, although you wouldn’t want to bet on it. Abbas may well see his U.N. speech, hailed by Palestinians for telling their story before the world and demanding justice, as a kind of political swan-song. It was reported this week that he plans to get Hamas to agree to the holding of new elections next May — elections in which he reportedly told his Fatah faction that he would not be a candidate.

Of course, Abbas has threatened to retire a number of times in the past, usually to get the attention of the U.S. and Israel who know that any replacement is unlikely to be remotely as pliable as Abbas is. But the outcome of the U.N. bid, and the broader collapse of his strategy, offers a lot more reason to believe him, this time.

Abbas appeared to acknowledge, even in his U.N. speech, that in order to achieve their goals, Palestinians would have to create leverage that makes the status quo uncomfortable for the Israelis. He effectively called for  an international campaign — on the lines of the anti-apartheid sanctions movement in the 1980s that helped end minority rule in South Africa — to pressure Israel to end its occupation. And he encouraged mass non-violent protest action.

But that’s not a campaign Abbas — a lifelong diplomat rather than an insurrectionist — is going to lead. Nor is his Palestinian Authority set up to challenge the occupation: It is by far the West Bank’s largest employer and the first line of Israel’s security — Abbas’ security forces do far more to protect Israel from Palestinian wrath than to protect Palestinians from Israeli soldiers and settlers. The Palestinian Authority is a key pillar of the status quo rather than a vehicle for challenging it.

Whether or not Abbas bows out, now, it will be left to others — within his own Fatah movement, within the rival Hamas organization (and perhaps, also, its more extreme, Iran-backed rivals in Islamic Jihad) and among the many thousands of Palestinians who align themselves with neither movement — to define the next chapter of the struggle for Palestinian rights.

Some are already getting busy. Next week, on November 15, a group of Palestinian activists from the non-violent protest movement that holds weekly demonstrations against Israel’s “separation wall” in West Bank villages will launch a campaign of “Freedom Rides”, a civil disobedience tactic of trying to board buses in the West Bank that they say are effectively (if not legally) reserved for Israeli settlers. It’s clearly a deliberate strategy to evoke the tactics, slogans and imagery of the U.S. Civil Rights movement to challenge the occupation — and it could well provoke a violent response from settlers or soldiers. It may be a small action, but chances are there will be many more in a situation on the ground that threatens to unravel as the PA likely  faces a growing internal crisis of legitimacy in the absence of progress towards statehood,  militant settlers are itching for a fight,  and younger Palestinians look to  challenge the status quo  in the spirit of the Arab Spring which — to international acclaim — lionized non-violent mass protest as the new grammar of Arab political self-expression.

The Israeli-Palestinian clash at the U.N. may have fizzled, but on the ground in the West Bank it may be just starting to heat up.