Abbas' Historical Gamble

Abbas admits he is taking a gamble by turning to the UN Security Council, but nevertheless made a masterful speech to gain support for his domestic politics while sending a calming message to the international community.

Yesterday's speech by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) was not enough to make headlines. Everything has already been said and known in advance. Nonetheless, Abbas' speech was a masterpiece of an experienced politician who on the one hand knows how to take advantage of the stage he was given in order to gain support for his domestic politics, and on the other hand send out a calming message to the Israeli public and international community.

In his speech, Abbas referred to Yasser Arafat's historical 1974 speech at the United Nations and offering the 'Abu Ammar' olive branch, saying the Palestinians want peace. Abu Mazen reiterated the promise that the Palestinians are still offering the olive branch and joked that he hopes the branch will not be taken from their hands. He seemed confident, and as usual interrupted his speech many times with entertaining comments. But, unlike Arafat's famous 1974 speech that was full of pathos, Abbas did not strap a weapons belt to his hips and instead emphasized again and again that the Palestinians are not seeking violence.

Abbas - Reuters - 16.9.11

The Palestinian Authority chairman turned to his people and requested that every move, procession, march and activity will be carried out with peace. "Do not give the Israelis an opportunity and do not be dragged behind the Israeli attempts to lead us to violence. Every military act r any act of violence will only harm our efforts." Many Israelis knew to criticize Abbas' apparent weakness over the past few years. But making such a demand of his public shows a prominent feature that indicates his strong hold on Fatah and the West Bank, and displays a different leadership to that which the Israelis were used to during Arafat's time. Abbas is not afraid of making it clear to the people of Fatah or the Palestinian territories that "the armed struggle", one of the Fatah's milestones, is undesirable for the 2011 model of a Palestinian state.

Indeed the Palestinian Authority chairman does not suffice with declarations alone. He already instructed Palestinian security organizations to prevent residents from engaging in violence with Israeli targets. He made it clear, as usual, that even if 100% of the Palestinian security forces efforts to stop violence are registered, it is unlikely that 100% of them will be successful.

The additional calming message to the Israeli public was that the Palestinian Authority intends to return to negotiations after immediately after achieving UN recognition in order to reach a peace agreement. Will they agree to return to negotiations even without freezing settlement building? Abbas did not address this issue and it is unlikely that he will agree to do so. In that sense it appears that one should not expect a breakthrough in negotiations over a final settlement following the UN vote.

In light of many rumors and reports, Abbas clarified that the Palestinian Authority intends to approach the UN Security Council requesting full UN membership and thus recognition of a Palestinian state. This is despite the fact he admits that a U.S. veto awaits him at the Security Council. His decision is accompanied by a clear indication to the Washington government and even more so to the Palestinian people, that he is not afraid of confronting the White House.

It appears that this has been one of the central problems in the Middle East peace process for the past two years: neither of the leaders –Israeli nor Palestinian – recoil from confrontation with the United States and U.S. President Barack Obama.

In the domestic arena, Abbas' declared move earns him numerous credit points among the Palestinians. He comes across as a strong leader that stands his ground and stands for the Palestinians' interests. He will also be listed in Palestinian history books as the elective who achieved international recognition for a Palestinian state.

Abbas did not forget to sting Hamas during his speech yesterday. Hamas has been observing the almost helpless (so far) developments and has been making meaningless criticism over Abu Mazen's move. Hamas also understand that the days of celebration planned in the West Bank from September 21 will further strengthen the statuses of Fatah, Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, while that of Hamas will only weaken. The question is, as always, whether Abu Mazen's strengthening status will survive the numerous days after the residents of Gaza and especially those of the West Bank, discover that nothing has changed on the ground.

Abbas' decision to turn to the Security Council still does not finally clarify whether he intends to simultaneously turn to the UN General Assembly for a vote there. If he does not do this, the debate at the Security Council is likely to be postponed for long months without tangible accomplishments that he will be able to present to the Palestinian public upon his return to Ramallah. On the other hand, turning to the General Assembly whilst the request is still being debated at the Security Council is likely to dissuade some of the states from supporting the request to recognize a state.

Despite his decisive and promising speech, the Palestinian Authority chairman admits he is taking upon himself a gamble. The public of the West Bank, who like in other places in the Arab world has reached an important and perhaps critical stage of making leadership decisions, wants to turn to the United Nations. But in the end
that same public is likely to turn against it and not only against Israel, if the request for full membership in the Security Council or General Assembly ends up perhaps with a Palestinian state, but one which stays within the protocols of the United Nations only, for many years to come.

Abbas - AP - 17.9.11