Back in May, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas adopted a new and radically different political strategy. Turning his back on the United States and peace talks with Israel, he signed a ”reconciliation” agreement with the Hamas movement and announced his intention to appeal to the United Nations in September for recognition of Palestinian statehood.
September is still six weeks away, but already it’s becoming clear that Abbas committed a monumental blunder, one that will leave his movement at a dead end — and possibly lead to an eruption of violence in the West Bank and Gaza.
First, the Palestinian reconciliation has gone nowhere. Hamas, which controls Gaza, and Abbas’s West Bank-based Fatah have reached an impasse over the appointment of the interim government they agreed would prepare for next elections by next May. The reason is relatively simple: Abbas is insisting that the administration be headed by his current prime minister, Salaam Fayyad, and adopt his governing program, including recognition of Israel. Hamas, predictably, won’t agree.
Neither side can easily back off. Western governments and Israel have made clear to Abbas that if Fayyad, a trusted moderate, is not retained or if Hamas does not recognize Israel, it will be cut off from aid as well as West Bank tax revenues. That would make it impossible to pay the 150,000 Palestinian government employees and trigger a major economic crisis. But Hamas, which despises Fayyad, can hardly agree to a “unity”government over which it has no influence.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian administration is already having trouble meeting its payroll, thanks to an apparent curtailment of aid from Persian Gulf countries. Employees received only half their salaries in July, and Abbas was quoted last week as saying he was “losing sleep” over his crumbling finances. He is likely to lose more. Both houses of Congress have passed resolutions warning that U.S. aid — which amounted to $500 million this year — also will be suspended if the Palestinian appeal to the United Nations goes ahead.
Having crawled far out onto a limb with the publication of a New York Times op-ed in May announcing that diplomatic initiative, Abbas is sticking to the U.N. membership bid. But in private and, increasingly, in public, influential Palestinians are conceding that the initiative was a bad idea. Palestine will not be accepted as a U.N. member, as that can be blocked by the United States’ Security Council veto.
The U.N. General Assembly could upgrade the Palestinians’ status from “observer” to “non-voting member,” but this would mean little. In exchange for losing U.S. aid and possibly the tax revenue that Israel controls, the Palestinians would get to join organizations such as UNICEF. Meanwhile they will provoke formal votes against their cause by the United States, Canada, Germany, Italy and a probably a number of other European states.
In the West Bank and Gaza, nothing will change for the better — in fact, it will certainly get worse as aid money disappears and salaries go unpaid. Frustrated Palestinians, who have remained mostly quiescent during the Arab Spring, may finally take to the streets.
Which raises the question: Is that what the Palestinian leadership actually wants?
Increasingly, it seems so. This week Marwan Barghouti, a Palestinian leader jailed in Israel with a large West Bank following, released a letter calling for mass demonstrations in September. Other Palestinian spokesmen are hinting at a “third intifada,” which they say will erupt when the U.N. General Assembly vote takes place.
I heard such talk last week from Maen Areikat, the Palestinians’ official representative in Washington. Areikat, who is close to the Abbas leadership, insisted that it was not advocating or planning a new uprising. “But we have limited powers and limited capabilities,” he said. “This could turn into a mass movement by the people to change the status quo.”
Or maybe not. A poll conducted by Stanley Greenberg and the Palestinian Center for Public Opinion and released Thursday by the Israel Project showed that two-thirds of Palestinians oppose a third intifada, and only 14 percent said they would personally participate in one. Only 4 percent said appealing to the United Nations for statehood should be one of Abbas’s top two priorities.
As one veteran Palestinian leader, Nabil Amr, put it this week, Abbas has “climbed a very high tree” — without any clear way of safely getting down.