On My Mind: Abbas’s choice

Abbas still has an opportunity to save the peace process. He can lead the many Palestinians who truly aspire, for themselves and their families, to achieve peace with Israel.

Abbas in rally for UN bid 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
Abbas in rally for UN bid 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman)
Barring a sudden change of mind, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas will ask the UN General Assembly on Thursday to recognize Palestine as a non-member observer state of the world body. The long anticipated PA scheme, bypassing direct talks with Israel, will do little to advance the prospects for achieving a permanent peace accord, or an actual independent Palestinian state.
The US, as well as several European countries, have urged Abbas to not go ahead with this diplomatic maneuver. There could be adverse ramifications for the PA, akin to the US cutoff of funding to UNESCO after that UN body admitted Palestine as a member. What will be the consequences of UN General Assembly action is not totally clear, but such uncertainty should be enough motivation for the Palestinian leader to reconsider.
Abbas, however, is convinced that he must proceed because he promised the Palestinian people and the world that he would. He ostensibly delayed the formal request of the UN General Assembly until after the US elections. After failing last year to get UN Security Council recognition of a Palestinian state, to admit the country that does not yet exist as a full UN member, he seeks what he considers the next best move, General Assembly upgrading of Palestine’s status.
That the PA has the votes was never in doubt. The Non-Aligned Movement, meeting in Tehran in August endorsed the proposition, and the same 120 countries will guarantee passage when they vote in the UN General Assembly. As Abbas seeks additional support among the 27 EU nations, opponents of the measure already have indicated that European abstentions would be considered a defeat for the PA.
Over the weekend Abbas declared that he expects President Barack Obama, in his second term, to deliver on his promise before the UN General Assembly two years ago to join with other UN member states in welcoming Palestine as a full member of the world body.
But establishing a Palestinian state still requires a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel. And the only path to sustainable peace is direct negotiations. While Washington will help the parties to the talks along the way, Abbas chose to walk away from dealing with Israel directly several years ago. He also has spurned the Obama administration’s efforts to get his representatives to return to the table, and to not do anything, like this week’s UN gambit, to further block potential peace process progress.
Going to the UN General Assembly is pure symbolism. Exactly 65 years ago, on November 29, this same UN body adopted the resolution to establish in British Mandatory Palestine two states – one Arab, one Jewish – to exist in peace and security. The Arab world, so vehemently opposed to the groundbreaking vision of that partition plan, tried to extinguish the new state of Israel, and many across the region still seek Israel’s annihilation.
The contours of a two-state solution have not altered much since 1947, but the ground has shifted dramatically during the so-called Arab Spring, posing new security challenges to Israel, to the US and, importantly, to those Palestinian leaders who say they aspire to achieve peace with Israel.
Abbas has been further marginalized by Arab leaders who have displayed support for the Hamas regime in Gaza. The emir of Qatar was the first head of state to visit Hamas-controlled Gaza, three weeks before the escalation of rocket attacks that led to Israel’s military response. During the Hamas-Israel fighting Tunisia’s foreign minister, Egypt’s prime minister and, finally, a larger delegation of foreign ministers from Arab countries and Turkey, came to Gaza and embraced Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh.
The one Arab leader notably absent was Abbas. Yet, none of the Arab countries dispatching emissaries to Gaza considered visiting Ramallah. Hamas reportedly refused to take phone calls from the PA president.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton did make the effort to meet with Abbas in Ramallah as the US sought to negotiate a Hamas-Israel ceasefire.
Her request, following up on a phone call from Obama to Abbas, that he forsake going to the UN this week, was rebuffed.
Abbas may well think that UN General Assembly endorsement of his request to upgrade Palestine’s status will boost his standing among Palestinians and in the wider Arab world. Hamas, however, vehemently opposes Abbas’s UN gambit as well as the PA he heads.
Abbas still has an opportunity to save the peace process. He will endure criticism from those who cannot countenance recognition of Israel. But he can lead the many Palestinians who truly aspire, for themselves and their families, to achieve peace with Israel. Returning to direct talks is the only practical option.
The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.