Exactly a year ago, President Barack Obama used the opening session of the UN General Assembly to express his hope that “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the UN — an independent, sovereign state of Palestine”. He returned to the same podium on September 21 to do the opposite i.e. to voice uncompromising opposition to Mahmoud Abbas’s decision, succinctly set out in an article published by the New York Times on May 16, 2011 that he would come to UN to “request international recognition of the state of Palestine on the 1967 border and that our state be admitted as a full member of the United Nations.” Palestinians, Obama now said, must make peace with Israel before gaining statehood themselves; the international community should continue to push Israelis and Palestinians toward talks on the four intractable ‘final status’ issues that have vexed peace negotiations since 1979: the borders of a Palestinian state, security for Israel, the status of Palestinian refugees who left or were forced to leave their homes in Israel, and the fate of Jerusalem, which both sides claim for their capital. In short, Abbas should first seek negotiations from the same position of utter helplessness as before.
Behind this polarisation of postures lie two remarkable transformations. Once elected, American presidents accommodate to the realities of power which are heavily linked to the mighty Jewish electoral and financial machine. Obama has been no different. In fact, he has deployed worldwide diplomacy to stop Abbas from pursuing the request for statehood, including a categorical threat to veto it in the Security Council. In bowing to this machine, he is willing to take the risk of losing Arab goodwill when the United States badly needs it to be on the right side of the Arab Spring.
The other transformation is that of Mahmoud Abbas. No other Palestinian leader has kept his faith in a peaceful negotiated settlement in the face of impossible odds. Most objective observers of the slowly dying 20-year-old Oslo process concluded years ago that Israel would never allow a viable Palestinian state even in what Abbas describes, with a touch of pathos, as “the remaining 22 per cent of our historic homeland”. The Oslo process only facilitated Jewish colonisation of occupied lands to a point where a Palestinian state became a geographical absurdity. Obama began by opposing more settlements but had by 2009 muted this idealism.
Abbas has come to the UN, evidently because he has run out of options. He does not even have a Palestinian consensus behind him. Hamas has not obstructed the UN initiative but without any optimism. More Palestinians than ever before despair of a two-state solution and are ready to wage a protracted, if romantic, struggle for a single state where Arab demographic advantage would eventually tame Zionist militarism. Abbas has already faced considerable internal criticism that his request for statehood is tantamount to reneging on the refugees’ right of return.
He knows that full membership is impossible even if nine members of the Security Council defy intense pressure and vote for it; Washington would simply veto it. Obama can limit the damage of an instant veto for US by delaying the vote through procedural stratagems that Abbas may not or cannot circumvent. Defeated in the Security Council, Abbas could still win a majority in the General Assembly to achieve the scaled-down objective of a ‘non-member observer state’ that would upgrade Palestine from being an observer “entity”; it would open more doors including the one that Israel and the United States fear most, namely, the International Court of Justice. Given the western pressure, the UN General Assembly cannot confer full membership on Palestine by invoking the procedure “uniting for peace”.
The consensus of independent opinion in the West is that the US should follow up the UN episode with a vigorous initiative to bring about a final status settlement in a year or so. Without it, Abbas’s barely patched-up tent would be buffeted by contrary winds and Obama would face a fierce wave of anti-Americanism in the Arab-Islamic world. It is a moment of truth for all the parties.
(To be continued)
Published in The Express Tribune, September 26th, 2011.