In Palestinian bid, Abbas occupies limelight

September 22, 2011

When Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas takes the podium at the United Nations on Friday to make a historic plea for membership of a Palestinian state, he will be playing an unlikely role for a man who for decades worked behind the scenes and lacks the charisma of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat.

Abbas, a low-key figure in a gray suit who prefers office meetings to theatrical appearances before crowds, has thrust himself into the limelight at a crucial juncture in Middle East peace efforts, defying President Obama and putting himself on a collision course with the United States and Israel.

But associates say that Abbas remains the deliberate, backroom operator who plots his moves with caution, even as he shakes up the framework that has governed the peace efforts for more than 20 years.

“He is going to the U.N. not as a visionary but as a pragmatist,” said Nabil Shaath, a senior aide who is with Abbas in New York.

The U.N. membership bid is to be submitted first to the Security Council, where it faces a possible U.S. veto. Abbas has said that no decision has been made yet on the Palestinians’ next step.

The Security Council could take weeks to review the request, which would allow more time for diplomacy before the Palestinians move to their next option: an approach to the U.N. General Assembly to upgrade their status to a non-voting observer state.

Associates said Abbas, who is outspoken about the need to resolve the conflict with Israel through negotiations and not violence, is motivated by the conviction that the existing framework for talks is not working and had to be put on a new basis.

Instead of holding asymmetrical talks with Israel as it deepened its occupation by expanding settlements, Abbas concluded that the better way forward was to level the playing field and pursue talks state-to-state, the associates said.

“He is a man of negotiations and peaceful resistance,” said Ahmad Tibi, an Israeli Arab legislator who is in regular contact with the Palestinian leader. “He realized that with the current Israeli government, [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu was increasing settlements and moving to decrease the scope of Palestinian sovereignty. He could not continue in this way for another 10 or 20 years. I have heard him say that he will use every diplomatic and political way to achieve the national goal of his people.”

The decision was also born out of “profound disappointment with the United States,” said Matti Steinberg, an Israeli scholar and expert on Palestinian affairs.

Abbas and his aides, expecting little from Israel, were disheartened when Obama dropped his insistence that Israel halt settlement building in the West Bank as a basis for negotiations, Steinberg said.

That trend was continued in recent formulas presented by U.S. officials to Abbas for a resumption of talks that, Shaath said, ignored the Palestinian demand for a settlement freeze and suggested that Israel could retain large Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank in a final peace deal.

At 76, Abbas is also considering his legacy, said people familiar with his thinking.

“The PLO has been struggling for a state for more than 40 years,” said Mahdi Abdul Hadi, chairman of the Palestinian Academic Society for the Study of International Affairs, referring to the Palestine Liberation Organization. “Abbas comes and says: ‘Arafat couldn’t deliver. I can deliver it at the U.N., and the younger generation can carry on the mission.’ This is his legacy, and he is looking for a graceful way out.”

For now, his bold step appears to have the solid support of his people, though many Palestinians acknowledge that they do not have high expectations.

A poll published this week by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, West Bank, showed that 83 percent of Palestinians support the U.N. initiative but that 77 percent think the move would be vetoed in the Security Council by the United States.

“This is not support for Abbas as such; it’s more support for the policy,” said Khalil Shikaki, the center’s director. “His standing has improved, but just a little. Abbas is definitely not a charismatic figure. He’s not a populist, and he’s not good at communicating with people. He just doesn’t have that capacity.”

In Shikaki’s view, the U.N. initiative was originally intended as a means to press Israel and the United States to end the impasse in peace efforts, which have been stalled for a year since talks broke off in a dispute over continued Israeli settlement building.

“He wanted to break the deadlock, and this was his way of doing it,” Shikaki said. “He never thought he would actually reach a point where he would have to take this step. But he had already invested so much in it that he could not retreat.”

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