Abbas's five non-options

There is one resource that is usually more abundant in the Middle East than oil: bad options.

Abbas and Hamas leader (photo credit: Reuters)
Abbas and Hamas leader
(photo credit: Reuters)
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At a time when the Middle East is in upheaval, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been pushed to the margins of the diplomatic agenda.
The Islamist surge in the region has emboldened Hamas’s political ambitions and is making Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah feel ever more isolated and anachronistic. The loss of former Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak, and the Arab uprisings more broadly, have relegated Abbas to the back burner. As the crisis escalates with Iran, the bloodbath in Syria continues, Egypt undergoes unprecedented change, and the region as a whole finds itself in a period of profound uncertainty, the goal of Palestinian statehood alongside Israel seems, to many, neither possible nor pressing.
After years of frustration with the conventional negotiation track, Abbas has toyed increasingly, though not always convincingly, with other options. Eager to maintain political relevance and at least the semblance of progress, the PA has threatened intermittently to embark on some new initiatives (see examples below). Potential for an economic crisis and growing signs of unrest in the West Bank (for example, recent violent protests over PA austerity measures, demonstrations against the harsh conduct of Palestinian security forces, and a decrease in Abbas’s popularity in the polls), have only intensified the search for popular policy alternatives. But despite the hype often associated with these proposals, the Palestinian leadership has consistently failed to follow through.
To be sure, some of these initiatives – such as the desire to seek membership in major UN agencies beyond UNESCO – have sometimes been aborted as much because of international opposition as Palestinian indecision. With respect to others, the PA has initiated the pullback, assessing that the near-certain costs would outweigh questionable and largely symbolic gains.
In the end, however, the tendency to advance and then abandon these options has served to underscore the emptiness of Palestinian threats and entrench a pervasive Palestinian sense of helplessness about the current situation. For some, it has been evidence of a regular Palestinian penchant for climbing up trees, only to find themselves without a ladder to climb down. In the Israeli arena, those issuing dire warnings about the dangers of Palestinian unilateral actions and threats or of Israeli inaction have been discredited as the relative calm persists (for now). The overall impact has been to highlight Abbas’s severe constraints (some, perhaps, self-generated) rather than elicit the desired response either from Israel or from the international community. There are, of course, multiple causes for the impasse in the peace process.
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