Abbas Has Shown Israel He Is Not Like Arafat

Abbas' declaration that he will request for full UN membership reflects a politician who knows how to garner domestic support, but also knows how to send calming signals to the Israeli public and international community.

If all went as scheduled, Defense Minister Ehud Barak left last night for the United States in an effort to find an agreed-upon last-minute solution to the current crisis with the Palestinians. The Middle East Quartet, comprised of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations, will also convene for an emergency meeting in New York. In addition, envoys from the American administration will continue to shuttle between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

All of this is part of an effort to head off a request by the Palestinian Authority to the UN for recognition of a Palestinian state. It is doubtful, however, whether in the short time remaining a way can be found out of the corner in which PA President Mahmoud Abbas painted himself on Friday. In a live television broadcast, Abbas declared that he would indeed submit a request to the UN Security Council for full membership for Palestine in the international organization.

Abbas - AP - 17.9.11

As Fatah central committee member Nabil Sha'ath explained Saturday, the main reason for the Palestinian insistence on submitting the request to the Security Council is that the U.S. administration's proposal for renewed negotiations between Israel and the PA contained no reference to an Israeli commitment to stop construction in West Bank Jewish settlements.

There is a certain irony in all this. It was pressure on Israel from U.S. President Barack Obama at the beginning of his term as president on a settlement freeze that led Abbas to paint himself into one corner by insisting on a settlement freeze before the start of negotiations. Now, it turns out Abbas has painted himself into another corner over the same settlement construction issue in insisting on going to the UN.

Another factor that will make it difficult for Abbas to reconsider his decision involves internal Palestinian politics. His stance on statehood recognition at the UN strengthens his position not only within Fatah but also among the Palestinian public as a whole. Retracting the demand without substantial achievements vis-a-vis Israel would greatly hurt the PA president. His insistence on going to the UN sends a signal to the Obama administration and, even more importantly, to the Palestinian people, that he is not afraid of a confrontation with the White House. In fact, it may be one of the most important aspects of the Middle East peace process over the past two years that neither Abbas nor Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has felt restrained from a direct confrontation with the United States and with the American president.

Although Abbas' televised speech on Friday was not the stuff from which major headlines are made, it did reflect the work of an experienced politician who knows how to garner domestic support on one hand, but also knows how to send calming signals to the Israeli public and the international community. He called on the Palestinian people to conduct themselves peacefully. Although many of his Israeli critics have taken Abbas to task for what they said was his weakness in recent years, such a call on his part from his own people is actually a sign of the strength of his standing within Fatah and in the West Bank in general. It also shows leadership of a different kind than what Israelis were used to from his predecessor, Yasser Arafat.

Abbas has also given the orders to PA security forces to prevent violence against Israeli targets on the part of residents of Palestinian cities. The problem, as always, however, is that even if there is 100 percent effort on that score, it is doubtful if it will also yield 100 percent success.

Abbas has also assured the Israeli public that after gaining recognition at the UN he would return to the negotiating table with Israel, but he didn't say if he would impose a halt to settlement construction as a condition to such talks.