The Palestinian UN bid: Abbas and the Domestic Front

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.

3- Hamas

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.


About nervana111

Doctor, blogger and Commentator on Middle East issues. The only practising doctor who write in Middle Eastern politics in UK.
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7 Responses to The Palestinian UN bid: Abbas and the Domestic Front

  1. Hi.
    I don’t believe Abbas is risking anything what concerns ‘cutting off the US aid’ he knows Obama will keep supporting them no matter what congress says.
    Obama made this clear in the recent past:

    “The Obama administration immediately made it clear that Obama will still continue funding the PA, regardless of what Congress says. At a July 12, 2011 Congressional hearing, a State Department official (Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Jacob Walles) stated that the Obama administration “strongly” believes in “continuation of U.S. assistance” to the PA. The Obama administration’s representative also ignored the real impact of the Hamas-PA unity agreement, and instead argued that because Salam Fayyad is still the PA Prime Minister, “nothing has changed.” This argument was a blatant attempt to avoid the common sense imperative and legal requirements to cut off aid to the PA now.
    The Obama administration apparently has no regard for what Congress says, and no regard for the fact that aid to a Palestinian Authority that includes Hamas is unlawful. ”
    Have a great day.


  2. Simply a brilliant piece on the realistic paradigms in play at the UN and the winnable scenarios for Israel, US and the Palestinians. A required must read for American media types and ill informed cable news viewers who are being misinformed by a full membership for the Palestinian state in the United Nations.


  3. Name of the game in present ME is Survivor (political) . Can fully understand Palestinian frustration with present situation but Abbas UN bid far from bringing any concrete gain is aimed at perpetuating his (Fatah and PLO) political status simply as an innocuous response to Arab Street demands .
    Unfortunately, he is playing a dangerous game and seems to miscalculating true repercussions of his acts.
    Altough Israel had remained silence (+ or -) on possible retaliations due to US pressure and lack of exact knowledge of Palestinian pledge exact extension.
    If Israel would feel truly pressured on political and security issues a total disengagement could not be discharged.
    and of course,
    that would be a major disaster for Palestinian people.


  4. Mohamed Zayed says:

    Just a simple and logical analysis. Emotionally I wish I can see a Palestinian state, but to be a realistic the situation looks like a gambling game, and very risky for all parties. Ironically the potential only winner in this dilemma is Abbas himself!
    Last but not least good job and congrats for the wonderful piece.


  5. KENT says:

    I do think that mr.abbas is now playing the same game as isreal did with him since oslo ..and in reality he do not realy means to get a real estate of palestina in the UN …but he is useing his last cards in his carrier ..witch is one of those two options in my opinion :’
    1-To force israli goverment to come back to the same table they did left for long time ago ..with the usa help and EU support and with arab legue back up him in a new pace talks with israeli .and then he would be feeling more strong to face the pressure on him ..and this new talks would give him and his followers in Ram allah -west bank ..a new time of control and let them stays on power for at least for the next 1-5 years …and i do think they would accept mr.Sarkuzi idea of a pre state stage and a controller seat in the UN for Palestine for one year or so with immediat talks start and a final state within 1 year or so according the 242 UN resoulation .

    2- The whole issue is a game make it easy to forget the right of return fro 8 million palestinians abroad to there org.cities in Israel ..but only to the agreeded state of palestine ..witch is 10%-25% or less of the orginal palestine areal …as it is now .
    To make it easy to make a transfer of arabs who are holding Isreali Citzenship to this new state of palestina ..where after that all arabs to be collected in one place and isreal to be emptied from arabs and muslims -christians as well ..but only jews to be allowed to stay ..and that according to the right wing wish of declearing a jewish state of isreal ..and her is the danger of it ..
    From other legal sides ..there are many issues ..we do need to take in mind to let such state take all legal responsibilty ..but without arming it ..and adding much expenses to this new states economy but with no aid from USA or from the western world ..or even from the arab world ..year by year ..and it would be turning to be as closed as Gaza now or even more …in the last end with poverty and no turnover and with no real army …many bad things would happen to such state …and to its people future ..
    In both ways is looking to be a dark picture ..but even so ..let us hope for a real peace for evry one.but only a real peace ..and not only for isreal but also for palestine .
    The now news about calls to attack syria by the nato(UN) again as in libya please Saudia arabia & Qatar as well as other GCC states ..who could had some thing to do with this palestinian state in The UN now …story …backed by Qatar ..& Saudia arabia.. and others too the UN is sounds great as it look like ..from out side ..but it is smiles bad ..Sorry i do not trust Qatari & SAUDI gov. …they did both made it in libya ..against Ghadafi ..and now they would do it in syria ..against ASSAD ..for personal reasons in both cases ..and that is what i am afraid off ..regarding the NEW move of ABBAS to the UN just now .
    I would like to ask mr.Abbas one question only : Why you did waited 18 years to do so sir?
    Do you realy means it now ?
    Is it not a another game you do play to make your people think that you are not 100% controled by USA or by Saudia arabia ? I do not wanted to add israel to those two states ..
    If you do realy means it …please let me know ..who you are intending to inforce this state and by whom? by your non armed army ? or by arabs army ?
    How do you intend to give people work without the USA +European Aid ?
    please do not tell me that you do not care about aids from both .. AND PLEASE DO NOT TELL ME THAT YOU DO DEPEND ON ARABS TO AID YOUR STATE …!!! FORGET IT ..SIR.


  6. T. Fouad, MD says:

    I finally got around to read your piece. It was easier of course to read it a couple of hours after Abbas made his historic UN bid and we’d all gone over the strategies / options many times. I am personally in favor of the bid, because the peace negotiations have been frustrating & the “condition on the ground” has become entirely inconsistent with the formation of any independent state (I mean the settlements). I believe that Abbas made his country’s case magnificently. But more importantly, I support the bid because it really strengthens Palestinians at the negotiations table. Finally, the other side will have to make some serious concessions because for the first time they will realize that they are actually losing the game.

    So although, I admit that my opinion is rather partial and a tad emotional, I still found this piece balanced and an altogether brilliant approach to the topic. Thank you for the effort you put into your work.


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