ONE OF THE winners in last week’s protests outside U.S. embassies in the Middle East was Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Before the eruption of outrage over an anti-Muslim film, Mr. Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad had faced a week of demonstrations and strikes in the West Bank that some were starting to compare to the revolts against other autocratic Arab rulers. Thanks to the eruption of anti-Americanism and Mr. Fayyad’s timely repeal of several recent price and tax increases, the opposition movement appears to have subsided for now. But one way or another, Mr. Abbas’s Palestinian Authority appears headed for trouble.
The 76-year-old president has been digging himself into a political hole since early last year, when he announced a new strategy of seeking recognition of Palestinian statehood by the United Nations and a reconciliation deal with the rival Hamas movement. The recognition bid flopped last fall in the U.N. Security Council, where the Palestinians failed to obtain even the eight votes needed for a simple majority. Meanwhile, talks with Hamas stalled, and long-overdue elections, promised for last May, were once again put off.
During this time Mr. Abbas has mostly refused negotiations with Israel, citing as a pretext the continued construction in Israel’s West Bank settlements. Israel has offered the Palestinian Authority a number of concessions in exchange for renewing the peace process, including prisoner releases and a potentially lucrative natural gas concession. But Mr. Abbas has not agreed.
Instead, as the West Bank demonstrations were reaching a crescendo, Mr. Abbas held a news conference in Ramallah on Sept. 8 and confirmed that he will renew the U.N. initiative, this time by seeking a vote in the General Assembly upgrading the Palestinians’ status to that of a non-member observer state. Palestinian officials say the new status might allow them to join more U.N. bodies and to bring actions against Israel in the International Criminal Court.
However, the vote would not create a state — and it might put an end to Mr. Abbas’s Palestinian Authority. Israel would probably stop providing the tax funds that pay for two-thirds of the authority’s budget; Congress, which has already held up $200 million in funding because of last year’s U.N. initiative, could block all American aid. That would worsen the economic crunch, caused by a loss of foreign funding, that has prompted the strikes and demonstrations Mr. Abbas is seeking to defuse. Not just the Obama administration but also friendly Arab governments, such as that of Jordan, have counseled Mr. Abbas that the push for recognition would be self-defeating.
The Palestinian leader seems to have left himself some wiggle room: He says the push for recognition will begin with “consultations” with other U.N. members after his Sept. 27 speech to the assembly. Other Palestinian officials have hinted that the “consultations” may be prolonged; Mr. Abbas might hope that he can extract concessions from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, after the Nov. 6 election, from President Obama, were he to win, in exchange for dropping the initiative. But to what end? As Jordan’s foreign minister recently pointed out, negotiations with Israel are the only realistic path to Palestinian statehood. Mr. Abbas’s refusal to accept that fact might prove to be his undoing.