Abbas Is on His Way to the UN Again

Despite recent denials and his customary policy roulette, the Palestinian president can’t afford to ignore the popular and cross-party pressure to return to the UN – but at what cost?

AP

A week after he was attacked in Ramallah, Israeli reporter Avi Issacharoff was invited by President Abbas to his office to condemn the attack and grant him an exclusive interview. Among the tidbits from the interview was Abbas’s assurance that, despite recently signing on to 15 international conventions and treaties, the Palestinians will not be going to the UN in the near future. Likely more an overture towards Israel and the international community than an actual policy decision, there is every reason to doubt this self-imposed moratorium will last past the summer.

For one, there are too many moving parts for the UN strategy to simply be abandoned in the long-term. A major sticking point from the Kerry talks’ April breakdown was that there are at least 63 international organizations, conventions and treaties on the current list for Palestinian acceptance. These 63 organizations, which have been grouped into ‘clusters,’ constitute the near-term aim of the Palestinian international campaign. Various officials have said that the holistic list of potential international organizations stretches closer to 550.

That’s not to mention the institutional support the UN campaign enjoys among the Palestinian leadership. Even before Abbas announced joining the 15 organizations in April there were calls from leaders of the other major Palestinian parties - such as the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine (DFLP), and the Palestinian National Initiative party - to abandon the talks and begin signing on to international conventions and treaties. In an interview in Ramallah with one of these leaders, a member of the PLO Executive Committee told me that the Palestinians should have signed on to the 63 organizations from the moment of the General Assembly upgrade vote in 2012. This is not an isolated assessment; for years there have been various strategy groups sprouting up among Palestinian officials calling for increased international engagement at the UN.

There is also is little reason to believe that the Palestinian public will give Abbas and the leadership the political flexibility to stand idly by during the upcoming September General Assembly meeting of the UN. Abbas’s tenure has been characterized by a policy-roulette of negotiations, reconciliation, internationalization, and the oft-threatened disbandment of the PA. With reconciliation with Hamas in its implementation phase and the idea of disbanding the PA fading further and further into the periphery, it’s hard to imagine Abbas neglecting to pursue other policies, especially a policy that polls as high as the UN campaign.

The only situation where a significant delay is imaginable, however, would be with the commencement of another round of negotiations. Palestinian leaders have already demonstrated a willingness to halt the UN campaign in deference to the negotiations, as was the case this last round of talks. Palestinian officials have told me that were talks to be re-launched—something that appears increasingly distant in the realm of possibility—the Palestinian position for future talks includes a 3-month moratorium on the international campaign in exchange for a halt in settlement construction.

The unknown factor here is the recent reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas and what effect that will have on the international campaign. Palestinian leaders have been quick to praise EU acceptance of the reconciliation announcement, but that degree of support is not ubiquitous across the global stage, and there are certain to be more than a few red flags on the upcoming conventions and treaties. It may be hard to maintain international recognition for the Palestinians as a signatory to the 4th Geneva Convention if Hamas, a known purveyor of rocket attacks into Israel, is party to the PLO.

There are also questions about the logical end-game of this UN strategy. Palestinian leaders are the first to admit that international recognition and acceptance will not change the status on the ground, nor will it create a state for the Palestinians. Where they differ amongst themselves, however, is how far this international campaign should be pursued and at what cost. While going to the UN in some capacity enjoys near-unanimous support throughout the Palestinian leadership and public, there are those who caution against another confrontation at the Security Council a la 2011, when Abbas threatened to pursue a vote there only to be stymied by the prospect of a U.S. veto. There are still certainly elements within the leadership that prevailed then, and will argue again, for the value of promulgating their status in the future in the UN Security Council, with its greater resonance and prestige compared to the UN General Assembly.

It’s clear that the foreseeable future of Palestinian policy will involve the international campaign in some capacity. What’s not clear is at what point going to the UN will be the Palestinians’ primary objective or the secondary. If talks are re-launched, a prospect that appears bleaker and bleaker each passing day, expect some sticking power to this self-imposed moratorium on the international campaign. If talks fail, however, don’t expect the Palestinians to watch a UN General Assembly meeting come and go this autumn without doing anything.


Grant Rumley is a visiting fellow at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. Follow him on Twitter: @Grant_Rumley