Abbas gains even as statehood drive stalls

Palestinian street lauds PA president's confrontation of America, leadership skills, though observers say strategy is dead-ended.

By DAVID ROSENBERG / THE MEDIA LINE
November 15, 2011 18:47
Kids with posters of PA President Mahmoud Abbas

Kids with posters of PA President Mahmoud Abbas 311 (R). (photo credit: Abed Omar Qusini/Reuters)

 
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Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, was on a roll last spring and summer, announcing with great fanfare plans to end the Hamas-Fatah rift and to seek recognition of statehood in the United Nations. Israel was livid and the US scrambled to create a blocking majority against statehood in the Security Council.

But now the grand strategy seems to be unraveling.

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Last week, Palestinians officials admitted off the record that the statehood bid in the Security Council was dead in the water, although the PA might still push for a symbolic vote in the General Assembly. Unity talks have stalled for now on the composition of a joint cabinet of technocrats and personal animosities.

Abbas won the Palestinian admission to the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) by a thumping majority and to the thunderous applause of delegates. But membership came at the cost of the organization’s losing its US funding, prompting UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon and other officials to call on the Palestinians to refrain from trying to join other international bodies.

Nevertheless, observers of the Palestinian scene say that as much as his strategy is dead-ended, Abbas, popularly known as Abu Mazen, has emerged as an unlikely hero in the Palestinian street. He is seen now as a leader who brought the Palestinian cause back to the world stage and had the gumption to say ‘no’ to the US

“He did his best. He didn’t buckle under tremendous pressure. People give him credit for that. They don’t blame him for the failure,” Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian journalist and analyst, told The Media Line. “His personal standing has improved.”

Abbas’ standing is critical as he engages in an ideological battle with the Hamas movement in Gaza. Together with the failure to get peace talks with Israel off the ground, his statehood setback has undermined his case for creating a Palestinian state through diplomacy and have given Hamas more evidence that its strategy for so-called armed resistance is the only choice.



Palestinians are not of one mind about how to pursue the goal of a state. A September opinion poll by the Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace and the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 83% of the Palestinians supported the drive for statehood via the UN. But just over a quarter of the respondents said they supported armed attacks on Israeli army and Jewish ettlers as a way of forcing Israel out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Last spring, Abbas’ prospects looked promising. Negotiations with Israel never got off the ground despite heavy pressure from the Obama administration, but the onus for the talks’ failure was placed by most on the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. The Palestinian economy was booming and the West Bank and Gaza were spared the mass protests exploding across the Middle East.

In April, Egypt brokered the terms for Abbas’ Fatah movement to begin national unity talks with Hamas to end a four-year-old rift that had been extremely unpopular in the Palestinian street. Not long afterwards the PA formally unveiled its bid for statehood and insisted it would settle for nothing less than a Security Council approval. It lobbied hard around the world and won seals of approval for good governance from the UN and International Monetary Fund. 

The Palestinians were admitted to UNESCO October 31 in vote of 107 in favor to 14 against (52 abstained). But in the Security Council, the Palestinians have failed to get the minimum nine votes out of 15 they need. Meanwhile, a Security Council admission committee was unable last week to formulate an agreed stance concerning the Palestinian bid for full UN membership.

Ido Zelkovitz, a lecturer in Middle Eastern history at Israel’s Haifa University, said Abbas had nevertheless scored some important victories along the way.

“The Palestinians won UNESCO membership despite the fact that the Americans opposed it and cut off funding to the organization. That was quite an achievement internationally,” Zelkovitz told The Media Line.

In doing battle with Washington, the Palestinian leader won favor in public opinion by articulating a widely held view among Palestinians that America is an imperialist power that is incorrigibly pro-Israel. Abbas also raised the Palestinian profile at a time when Arab Spring turmoil had directed attention to places like Libya and Syria.

“In last years what was the biggest problem of the Palestinians?” he said. “It was that no one listened to them because the West Bank was quiet and economy was thriving. No one was paying attention to them.”

National unity talks are showing signs of thawing. On Monday, Salam Fayyad, the PA prime minister and a figure loathed by many in Hamas, signaled that he was prepared to step aside if that would bring the two movements together. Abbas is due to hold face-to-face talks in Cairo this month with his arch-rival, the exiled Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.

Zelkovitz said he is skeptical that Hamas and Fatah will be able to put aside their differences, or more importantly, agree to share the financial resources of the Palestine Liberation Organization. Indeed, Abbas and Fatah leaders fear Hamas might try to wrench control of the PLO from them. But Kuttab is more sanguine.

While Abbas will not resort to violence, he still retains options to pursue his agenda through diplomatic and political means, Kuttab said. The Security Council rotates its non-permanent members every six months and the Palestinians can wait until “the magic nine” votes they need emerge.

“Abu Mazen has instructed his team to look for other options to the UN statehood and independence,” he said. “He’s against violence, so that is off the table. That increases the need for national unity, the need to work for massive non-violent protests and to take advantage of the 100-plus countries that support Palestine to encourage them in a boycott divestment campaign against Israel.”

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