Mahmoud Abbas Is Having the Time of His Life

At 76 years of age, with less than a year to go before his supposed retirement, the Palestinian president has suddenly got the world in his hands, or at least at his feet.

NEW YORK - More than 100 world leaders are descending on New York this week to participate in the 66th United Nations General Assembly, in what can only be described as a security expert’s worst nightmare. The entire area surrounding the UN building on Manhattan’s East Side is like a closed military zone; the city’s narrow streets and sprawling avenues are blocked off intermittently and at a moment’s notice, sirens pierce the day and night as notables and dignitaries are whisked from here to there and back in armed convoys, while thousands of New York’s Finest are out in force in a valiant effort to unravel the monster traffic jams while calming the frayed nerves of the local residents.

But make no mistake, Mahmoud Abbas is having the time of his life. At 76 years of age, with less than a year to go before his supposed retirement, the Palestinian president has suddenly got the world in his hands, or at least at his feet. Statesmen and diplomats from around the globe are falling over themselves in a last-ditch effort to dissuade Abbas from pursuing his bid for UN recognition of Palestinian statehood and he, as far as one can tell, is enjoying every minute.

Abbas - Ban Ki-moon - AFP - 20092011

For the past several weeks Abbas has been pressured, cajoled, threatened or bribed every which way imaginable. At this very minute, only hours after his arrival in New York, members of the Middle East Quartet are frantically exchanging fresh formulas that might find favor with Abbas, while European diplomats come and go with last-minute wordings and new fangled phrasing, and even Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama are to confer Wednesday in what is by far the most hastily-arranged meeting of their short and troubled acquaintance - but to no avail. In this Coliseum of high-stakes diplomacy, the soft-spoken and rather uncharismatic Abbas has suddenly been cast out-of-character as a Caesar who gazes at the teeming arena below him before dispassionately turning his thumbs down, as the Arabs and Palestinians ecstatically cheer him on.

What started off last October as a half-baked and half-hearted suggestion in Le Monde newspaper by two soon-to-be has-been European diplomats – France’s Bernard Kouchner and Spain’s Miguel Moratinos - that the Palestinian issue be brought to the UN, has now blossomed into a high-stakes game of political brinkmanship. It is slated to reach a climax in the General Assembly on Friday, in a rhetorical showdown between Abbas and Netanyahu worthy of the OK Corral. In the interim, a distraught Israel has been reduced to so much bluster and empty threats, such as denying funds to the financially strapped Palestinian Authority or unilaterally annexing settlement blocs, which are mostly of the “cutting off your nose to spite your face” variety. And Obama, the nebbish, who has enlisted his entire Administration to fight in the trenches for Israel, has had to endure not only the indignity of being summarily brushed off by Abbas but also the humiliation of the giant New York billboards posted by his Jewish detractors, which show him smiling and shaking hands with the same Abbas, under the damning caption: “not pro-Israel”.

Some knowledgeable observers now view Abu Mazen’s success as a cause for guarded optimism. He has proven his point, they say; he has drawn the world’s attention to Palestinian statehood and has positioned himself as the man of the moment. He can now safely submit a request for full UN membership of Palestine to the Security Council - in which the Palestinians are having a hard time rustling up the nine-member majority which would trigger a US veto – but refrain for the time being from seeking the lesser but no less incendiary upgrade that is assured in the General Assembly. Abbas could say that he is awaiting a new and more favorable makeup of the Security Council (after the selection of its new non-permanent members in mid-October), while continuing to negotiate with the Americans, thus averting not only the threat of violence in the territories but also the danger of economic sanctions that might be imposed by the American Congress.

But these rational calculations may fail to take into account the potential effects of Abbas’ late-blooming empowerment, both on him and on the suddenly resurgent expectations of the Palestinians as a whole. Emboldened by his unexpected success and guided by a false sense of confidence that he will be able to ride the tiger that he has unleashed, Abbas might decide to go all the way, come what may, and to press for a quick victory in the General Assembly.

The fact that everyone is hanging on his every word only emphasizes the fact that Abbas is still sitting firmly in the driver’s seat, while both Jerusalem and Washington are like the deer that are mesmerized by the approaching headlights. As the drama continues to unfold in the Turtle Bay neighborhood near the East River in midtown Manhattan, one cannot escape the feeling that both countries have been outfoxed and outmaneuvered by a Palestinian leader who is apparently surprising even himself.