It was a year ago this month that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas turned his back on the U.S.-sponsored “peace process” with Israel and embarked on a radically different strategy for achieving Palestinian statehood. It’s time for a reckoning.
Abbas’s step one was the surprise signing of an agreement in Cairo with the Islamic Hamas movement, ruler of the Gaza Strip, that promised to end the rift between Hamas and Abbas’s secular Fatah movement. A joint government was promised that would stage parliamentary and presidential elections within a year — i.e., by now.
Needless to say, no Palestinian elections are on the horizon. The joint administration, despite several subsequent announcements, has not been established.
Abbas’s step two was the publication in the New York Times of an op-ed in which he declared his intention to take the Palestinian case to the United Nations, where he would seek full membership from the Security Council or General Assembly. This, he wrote, would “pave the way for the internationalization of the conflict as a legal matter” and allow “us to pursue claims against Israel at the United Nations, human rights treaty bodies and the International Court of Justice.”
Last September, Abbas duly launched his campaign at Turtle Bay. But neither the Security Council nor the General Assembly ever voted on the Palestinian case. In the Security Council, it turned out that the Palestinians lacked the votes to win even a simply majority, despite months of globe-trotting and lobbying of world leaders by Abbas. The only result of the U.N. campaign was the admission of Palestine to UNESCO — and the subsequent devastation of that cultural agency’s budget by the loss of U.S. funding. Other U.N. agencies quietly begged the Palestinians not to apply.
The final phase of the Abbas strategy was supposed to kick in last fall: Palestinians were urged to turn out for mass pro-statehood demonstrations. Abbas’s aides made no secret of their hopes that a new popular intifada would erupt, a Palestinian version of the Arab Spring that, combined with the U.N. votes, would bring unprecedented pressure to bear on Israel.
Only nothing happened. There were a couple of West Bank demonstrations but no intifada.
This week, Abbas effectively brought his campaign to a close with a last, pathetic gesture: a letter, under preparation for months, that was delivered to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by a Palestinian delegation. Predictably, the missive faulted Israel for the failure of peace talks; somewhat audaciously, it also blamed Netanyahu for the collapse of Palestinian reconciliation.
Even the small bombshell Abbas planned to drop this time fizzled: Under pressure from U.S. and European leaders, the 77-year-old leader merely threatened rather than declared the dissolution of the Palestinian Authority. “This situation cannot continue,” the letter ominously states. But the disappearance of Abbas’s administration looks no more likely than reconciliation with Hamas, admission to the United Nations or a new intifada.
Abbas’s defenders will claim that Netanyahu’s right-wing government, and the Obama administration’s inability to influence it, left him with few options. That’s a canard. In fact, Abbas has never seriously tested the Israeli leader. He could have done that by fully committing to the negotiations the Obama administration tried to organize or to those sponsored by Jordan’s King Abdullah this year. That would have forced Netanyahu to reveal his terms for Palestinian statehood — and brought real pressure to bear on him if they were unreasonable.
Instead, Abbas has repeatedly backed away from serious diplomacy, citing as an excuse Israeli settlement construction in Jerusalem and the West Bank — something that did not stop him from participating in negotiations with previous Israeli governments. He embarked on his unity-U.N.-intifada strategy on the premise that it would bring about Palestinian statehood without the need for negotiations with Netanyahu.
And, not for the first time, Mahmoud Abbas succeeded only in delaying Palestinian statehood — and weakening his own cause.