Palestinian Affairs: Searching for a ladder

Will Abbas find a way to drop his plans for a unilateral statehood declaration and a unity government with Hamas?

Mahmoud Abbas 311 (photo credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)
Mahmoud Abbas 311
(photo credit: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg)
President Mahmoud Abbas is beginning to realize that he has climbed a very high tree regarding the plan to ask the UN to recognize a Palestinian state in September, and is now crying out for someone to provide him with a ladder to come down.
This is how a senior Palestinian Authority official in Ramallah responded when asked this week where Abbas stood on the issue of the statehood bid.
RELATED: Stop the spoilingHamas, Fatah deflect blame for failed Palestinian unity
In the last two weeks, according to the official, Abbas has come under immense pressure from the US administration to abandon the statehood initiative and return to the negotiating table with Israel.
Abbas is also facing pressure from the Americans and some EU governments to abandon plans to form a unity government with Hamas, the official said.
The feeling in Ramallah is that Abbas would not be able to resist the growing pressure and would eventually be forced to drop his plans for unilateral statehood and unity with Hamas.
Already this week, there were signs that he was reconsidering the two moves.
On the issue of statehood, Abbas seems to have softened his tone and is no longer threatening to go to the UN at all costs. The message he is sending now to the Americans and Europeans is: Please hold me back from going to the UN.
Abbas is now saying he would rather return to the negotiating table with Israel than proceed with the plan to seek statehood unilaterally. But to do so, he needs Israel to give him something so it won’t appear as if he has once again surrendered to outside pressure.
The PA president is in fact searching for a face saving solution to the mess he got himself into by declaring day and night that nothing would stop him from going to the UN in September.
He is counting on US President Barack Obama to give him the ladder that would enable him to climb down from the tree without being hurt.
“I still have hope in President Obama,” Abbas said this week in an interview with a Lebanese TV station.
Abbas and his aides say that the Americans and Europeans have come up with a number of proposals that would help the PA president backtrack on the statehood initiative. The Palestinians are now studying these proposals, some of which are not bad, according to sources close to Abbas.
“We have two basic demands,” the sources said.
“We want a commitment that the 1967 borders would serve as the basis for future negotiations and a temporary cessation of settlement construction. The ball is now in the Israeli court.”
What worries decision-makers in Ramallah is that most of the EU countries have endorsed Washington’s opposition to the statehood initiative.
The EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, Catherine Ashton, met with Abbas in Ramallah last week and advised him to find a way to resume peace talks with Israel instead of proceeding with the statehood plan.
Ashton’s refusal to support the statehood plan apparently convinced Abbas and his team that the time had come to start searching for an “honorable” way out of the quagmire.
Abbas’s biggest fear is that the Americans and Europeans would hold him responsible for derailing the peace process by embarking on a unilateral move that would draw a strong response from the Israel government, such as abolishing the Oslo Accords or annexing parts of the West Bank.
On the other hand, the statehood initiative has triggered a debate among the top Palestinian leadership in the West Bank as a growing number of senior officials begin to voice opposition to the plan for various reasons. Some are worried it would put the Palestinians on a collision course with the Americans and Europeans, who are the Palestinians’ major funders.
Others fear the plan would deepen divisions among the Palestinians, especially because Abbas has failed to consult with all political groups and Palestinian representatives abroad about the move. Some Palestinians have been asking whether Abbas, whose term in office expired in early 2009, has a mandate to embark on such a historic decision.
The reconciliation pact with Hamas has only exacerbated the crisis. Facing threats from the US and EU to suspend financial aid to the Palestinians if Hamas is allowed to join a unity government, Abbas this week canceled a planned summit with Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal in Cairo.
At the summit, Abbas and Mashaal were supposed to announce the establishment of a new Palestinian government under the terms of the Egyptian-brokered deal, which was declared in Cairo on May 4.
Although the official reason for the cancellation was failure to reach agreement on who would head the unity government, Palestinian officials admitted that American and European pressure and “threats” had forced Abbas to change his mind.
Abbas was never keen on the agreement with Hamas and was dragged into it under pressure from the new government in Egypt, said a Fatah representative closely associated with the PA leader.
In light of the fierce opposition in Washington and the EU to the unity deal with Hamas, Abbas’s aides are now talking about delaying the implementation of the reconciliation accord for several months, also because of the wide gap between the two rival parties on security and political issues. As one aide put it, “We announced an agreement when in fact we haven’t reached agreement on anything.”
Abbas’s failure to go to the UN in September and implement the reconciliation accord with Hamas will only cause further damage to what’s left of his credibility among Palestinians. It remains to be seen if any ladder can help him out of this mess.