September 26, 2011
Abbas Dares Israel, U.S. to Make Peace
Mahmoud Abbas may not be as popular as his jubilant reception in Ramallah suggest, but he’s no longer the lame duck that many pegged for dead.
Clinging to his expired term as president of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA), Abbas is mired in unfavorable negotiations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, highlighting his as impotence against Israel and the international community. Fatah and Hamas have failed to reconcile despite a series of meetings to outline a transition forward, including the next presidential election. Yet Abbas is still standing, perhaps at his highest point in six years as PNA chairman. Despite his flaws, Abbas ultimately offers an appropriate symbol for the Palestinian’s bid for statehood: down but not out.
“We have told the world that there is the Arab Spring, but the Palestinian Spring is here,” Abbas told a crowd of celebrators in the West Bank. “A popular spring, a populist spring, a spring of peaceful struggle that will reach its goal.”
Reckless abandon has its advantages, and Abbas successfully rallied a large segment of the international community to push his statehood bid through the United Nations. The body began to consider his proposal on Monday, a process expected to take an undetermined period of weeks. Nawaf Salam, Lebanon’s Ambassador to the UN and current Council President, briefly emerged to tell reporters that a formal meeting would be held on Wednesday “to transmit the bid to a committee on admission of new members which includes all 15 council nations.” Approval in either the Security Council or through a "special report" to the General Assembly would continue Abbas’s impressive turnaround - just as long as the PNA reacts accordingly to the situation.
Recent polling from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research indicates that Abbas remains perched on the edge, ready to leap or fall with his people. Aware of his position, Abbas told the crowd upon his return to Ramallah, “Dear brothers, we are realistic. Our international journey has begun and a long journey lies ahead.”
PCPSR’s numbers aren’t surprising. 83% of respondents support Abbas’s bid to the UN, with 74% believing that, “there is no point in returning to negotiations with Israel without acceptable terms of reference or without freezing settlement construction.” Through no coincidence, 64% also replied that an Arab Spring-inspired uprising would fail to end the occupation. Abbas’s own approval drops considerably, to 52%, as he loses support from Gaza and assumes the West Bank’s disenchantment. If new presidential elections were held today, Abbas would defeat Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh 59% to 34%, with a 51% rating in Gaza.
The question of statehood is loaded, emotionally speaking. Regardless of their personal beliefs, most Palestinians are likely to support the idea of an international recognized state, even as a starting point to full-fledged statehood. Any movement, to them, is forward progress regardless of the potential confrontation with Israeli settlers and the IDF, since these experiences are already endemic. Whatever his personal popularity, Abbas appears to have a solid mandate to advance the Palestinians’ cause through the UN. Many feel that they have more to gain than lose, whereas Israelis generally lean in the opposite direction.
A 70% majority of Israelis would accept the UN’s decision, in line with frequent polls on a two-state solution, but 57% of respondents said that Israel should first try to obstruct Abbas’s appeal.
The de facto PNA president has tried to explain that UN status isn’t a declaration of war against Israel, nor is Abbas’s intention to isolate the Israeli people. While the Palestinians’ cause is now supported by a majority of states, no sensible argument can be made that Israel is more isolated on the ground, and its international support outweighs the Palestinians’ numbers. The Palestinians are trying to break their own blockade, not apply a siege to Israel, but this process has been mixed up in an intense counter-media campaign. Abbas also repeated that negotiations would restart in conjunction with UN status, but U.S. and Israeli officials initially brushed him aside.
The White House and State Department later switched to arguing that negotiations must be unconditional after encountering criticism from U.S. and foreign reporters. These claims similarly misrepresented the situation, driven by domestic and foreign criticism that Obama is “too hard” on Israel. Leaving a favorable U.S. position aside, Netanyahu’s idea of “negotiations without preconditions” includes no right of return, no Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine and no military.
It’s not surprising that two unilaterally-minded governments seek to deprive others of the same liberty.
“The United States and Israel are more closely coordinated now than they have been at any time in the last two years,” said Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S. “We see things very much eye-to-eye on how to move forward. We see the United States as Israel emphasizes that there is no alternative to direct negotiations.”
Some participants and observers expect open conflict by October, and 68% of polled Palestinians expect some form of a backlash from Israel. Others sound like they’ll start a conflict if one doesn’t break out upon the UN adoption of Palestinian statehood. Roughly one third of respondents, presumably weighted in Gaza, told PCPSR that they still support an armed intifada in the event of a veto. These elements will profit from international disarray instead of being forced to confront an open path towards legitimacy. Meanwhile Netanyahu leads the Israeli contingent of obstructionists, although he tried to “make peace” to the UN. “The truth is that Israel wants peace; the truth is that I want peace,” he insisted, adding that he “noticed the Arab peace initiative.”
Only the Israeli media is having its own field day with Netanyahu’s two-faced rhetoric, and few politicians conjure more distrust and acrimony between the Palestinians than the hard-line premier. Avidgor Liberman is one of them. Netanyahu’s foreign minister recently told Israeli Army Radio, “That would bring us to an altogether new situation and this would have repercussions, severe repercussions. Any unilateral step will without a doubt bring an Israeli reaction.”
Realizing that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and all its ramifications - political, military, economic, social and religious - prevents a smooth or speedy resolution, U.S. and Israeli policy-makers are also guilty of negative thinking. Fear of the unknown and a reduction in power is making them paranoid of existing shadows, inducing panic in the dark. The Palestinians are attempting to balance what is currently a biased two-state solution in Israel’s favor, and this struggle has triggered a nationalist reaction enflamed by Netanyahu and Lieberman. Washington, naturally, has shadowed them all the way to the UN.
Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat emphasized this point during an interview with Charlie Rose, explaining that the White House never wavered from its promise to veto any UN action - Arab Spring be damned. The administration hopes to avoid a veto by swaying Bosnia, Colombia, Nigeria and Gabon to “return to negotiations,” which would give the Palestinians only six votes in the Security Council. With the UK, France, Germany and Portugal set to abstain, these previous countries would tip the balance against China, Russia, Lebanon, Brazil, India and South Africa.
Suddenly India and Brazil have become obstacles to America. Such is the irony of the weak overpowering the strong in order to overpower the weak.
To persuade the toss-up states, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has mixed honey and poison to reopen the negotiating room (Quartet efforts are targeting foreign states, not the Palestinians). After praising Abbas and other notable officials for all of their hard work, the White House rejects the UN as a valid entity in the conflict while simultaneously expecting a solution by the end of 2012. An unrealistic goal considering the last two+ years, this tactic is merely a ploy in the vein of George Bush’s last-ditch Annapolis summit in 2007. These efforts are contributing to the potential for violence, as though U.S. and Israeli officials require bloodshed to sustain their policy.
Sounds similar to certain militant factions in Gaza.
If the Obama administration put this much energy into supporting the Palestinians’ legitimate statehood, Abbas probably wouldn’t have gone to the UN and explicitly dared the U.S. to veto in the first place. The White House should dare Netanyahu’s government to make peace instead.