The announcement Tuesday night by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas that he had applied for observer status at 15 UN institutions was aimed at pressuring Israel and the international community, but it was also intended to convey a strong message at home.
Abbas, who for years had adopted a conciliatory and pragmatic line toward Israel and the West, has been viewed over the last nine months as someone who has few cards left to play and who must therefore accept the dictates of the Israelis and Americans. In contrast to his predecessor, Yasser Arafat, Abbas has been determined to prevent a conflagration in the West Bank, rejecting violence as a policy and pursuing diplomacy and popular struggle instead. His supporters say that this policy led to significant Palestinian achievements in the international arena, highlighted by the overwhelming support at the UN General Assembly for the Palestinian request to join as a non-Member Observer State.
His detractors, however, say his approach emasculated the national struggle, noting that despite the international support for the PA, Israel continues to do as it pleases in the West Bank, from arrests to settlement construction to blocking any connection with the Gaza Strip. The critics also say that security cooperation with Israel has turned the PA into an Israeli subcontractor that pays salaries, carries out arrests and deals with civilian issues.
There’s no doubt that these messages have reached Abbas’ ears: Whoever has been listening to him in recent months has heard him repeatedly say: “I’m 80 years old and will not leave the arena as a traitor to the Palestinian people.” The meaning of this is clear: Abbas understands that he won’t be the Palestinian leader forever and that even within Fatah there is talk of replacing him. He wants to step off the public stage as a Palestinian national leader who stood up for Palestinian national interests, particularly the establishment of a Palestinian state along the 1967 boundaries with East Jerusalem as its capital, along with a solution for the refugee issue based on the Arab Peace Initiative and UN Resolution 194. Neither Abbas, nor anyone who succeeds him, can accept any less.
The decision to apply to the UN institutions, whether meant as a threat or as a serious pursuit, signals to the United States, the international community, and the Arab states that Abbas and the Palestinian leadership have reached the point of no return. Either Israel reconsiders its positions and pursues a final arrangement, or the two-state solution falls by the wayside, to be followed by the breakup of the PA. In the end, those who made lofty demands for recognition of a Jewish state will end up with a binational state.