Yesterday, President Mahmoud Abbas formally declared his intention to seek full membership for the Palestinian state in the United Nation. His decision raised more than a few eyebrows, as many did not expect him to defy the Obama administration who have repeatedly warned against such a move. So does Abbas know what he is doing?
The bid for statehood has some diplomatic benefits, and it is a moral boost for the oppressed Palestinians who had to watch the failed Oslo peace process for 18 years. However, many analysts have rightly pointed out the risks of taking such a path, which can potentially undermine the prospect of reaching a genuine and lasting solution for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
Behind the scene, there is a domestic political imperative behind Abbas decision. Yes, he wants to seek a statehood, but he is also planning his own political survival.
For many years, Abbas watched his popularity plummet among the Palestinian public. Many viewed him as a collaborator who only maintain Israel security. Netanyahu made things even harder, his refusal to renew the moratorium on settlement building in the West Bank has led to the final breakdown of the direct negotiations.
By opting to go outside the framework of the Oslo accord, Abbas would probably be able to regain his popularity among the Palestinians, snooker the Israelis and US and most importantly score a few points against Hamas.
1- Winning hearts and minds
Abbas may not be charismatic or indeed wise; however, he is not dumb, and he knows a thing or two about the Palestinian domestic politics. He fully understands that a state resulting from negotiation is by far better than a symbolic one achieved unilaterally, and the reality on the ground may not change much for the ordinary Palestinians and may even get worse. However, he also understands the Palestinian psyche who will probably appreciate the small gains from the UN more than any achievement from any negotiated settlement.
When it comes to handshakes with the Israelis, Arabs always remember the compromises, not the achievements. Ironically, little gains without a handshake could be a popularity boost among the hostile public.
By seeking the UN bid, Abbas would enhance the image of a leader who want to create a state for his own people and is willing to defy the USA”the world superpower”to achieve his goal.
2- The US Aid
As the United States is the largest provider for the Palestinian Authority (PA), it appears a reckless decision from Abbas to rebuff the Obama administration, despite his full awareness of the latest congressional threats to cut off all US aid to the PA.
I think Abbas is banking on two factors; the Arab uprising and the risk of Hamas take over the West bank.
a- The Arab uprising:
The Arab uprising has provided Abbas with a perfect backdrop for his statehood conquest. The current fluid and tense situation in the Middle East (Egypt, Libya, Syria and to mention the recent Turkish–Israeli confrontation) is enough to give the United States reasons for concerns. Would Obama risk stopping the Palestinian aids among all this evolving dramas? There are already many organization such as J street (the pro-Israel, pro peace movement) have called for the US not to cut its aid for the Palestinians, and probably many more will follow.
b- The West bank:
Many analysts are predicting that Israel would take harsher countermeasures on the ground in retaliation of Abbas move, such as withholding tax remittances, restricting Palestinian movement, and possibly annexing some West Bank territory. Can Israel afford such aggressive moves?
Israel already has enough on its plate and is facing enormous challenges; terrorist threats from Gaza, deterioration in the relationship with Egypt, increasing hostility from Turkey.
Currently, the West Bank is the quietist of all fronts. Threats are perfect for the haggling in the UN, but at the end of the day, Netanyahu would probably settle for a Palestinian “non-state member” in order to avoid a third intifada.
In recent years, the relationship between the two main Palestinian factions (Fatah and Hamas) has been extremely poisonous. The recent unity deal had failed to restore confidence or resolve the bitter conflict between the two parties. Even the thought of Abbas visit to Gaza was too much for Zahar (Hamas co-founder).
Ironically, the failed unity deal gave Abbas some popularity among many Palestinians who favorably viewed his efforts to seek a united front with Hamas before the UN bid. Many in Gaza are excited about the prospect of statehood, despite Hamas refusal to allow popular protests in support of the UN proposal. There are reports that shop owners are preparing for the UN bid by making souvenirs imprinted with the ‘Palestine 194′ logo.
So what’s next?
Option one (escalation): The US and Israel retaliate and a third intifada erupts including the possibility of violent confrontations. In that case, the Palestinians will blame “the Zionists” and not Abbas.
Option two (status quo): The haggling in the UN will lead to a deal acceptable to Israel and the Obama administration. The US might reduce the aid (as a compromise to the Republicans in the Congress) without compromising the survival of the PA. In that case, Abbas can also claim some victory.
So in a nutshell, The UN bid is ideal for Abbas domestic needs. The UN may not offer the Palestinians full statehood, but would give Abbas a reasonable chance for political survival in the possible next year election and that is what probably matters most to him. As for a permanent solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict, there appears to be no strategy except prayers!
Even if Abbas is planing to retire, he is probably looking for a symbolic win by the end of his career.