A rally in Ramallah. (Mohamad Torokman / Courtesy Reuters)
The UN General Assembly vote on November 29, which granted Palestine the status of a nonmember observer state, was little more than an act of political theater. But in the pretend world of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, theater can matter. Last week’s floor show offered Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and his Fatah confreres a chance to distract attention from their recent losses. After all, they have had a rough year: no progress toward ending the occupation and developing a political solution with Israel; a persistent budget crisis; street protests that, for first time, targeted him and the other PA leaders; and most recently, Operation Pillar of Defense, an Israeli incursion into the Gaza Strip that left Abbas sitting on the sidelines while Hamas, his movement’s rival, chocked up what passes for victory in Palestine. Now, at least, nobody can say that Abbas failed. But what he achieved is unclear.
For one, the UN move did not offer a solution to Abbas’ main predicament; when he awoke this morning, the albatross of two decades of failure still hung heavy around his neck. He has no easy way to rid himself of it. Palestinian statements that this vote will save the peace process are vacuous — as pointless as the hand-wringing among U.S. and Israeli officials, who wax pessimistic about the vote’s death blow to negotiations. It is impossible to revive what is dead, just as it is impossible to kill it again.
For his part, Abbas has said that he would return to the negotiating table after the vote. If he does, though, the talks are unlikely to get very far. Indeed, given the heightened mistrust between the PA and Israel and their mutual willingness to ignore the United States (the Palestinians at the United Nations, the Israelis by announcing particularly provocative new settlements), this round is even less likely to succeed than the last.
Abbas, of course, has other choices. He can and should use the symbolic capital he accrued in New York to push for reconciliation with Hamas. With the Islamists feeling empowered after Operation Pillar of Defense and the pro-reconciliation camp within Hamas having recently clawed back some ground, both Fatah and Hamas might feel that the moment is right for unity. Alternately, Abbas could find himself goaded into making use of the international bodies that he now has access to, including justice mechanisms, to put pressure on Israel. He does not want to be pushed in that direction. Not only would it run counter to his disposition, the more resolute he appears to be against Israel, the harsher U.S. and Israeli responses will be. For that reason, he must carefully weigh how much he is willing to risk, up to and including the existence of the PA itself.
Abbas is not the only one with choices here. For one, the willingness of EU member states to break ranks with one another at the United Nations (16 voted in favor; only the Czech Republic voted no; Bulgaria, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and the United Kingdom abstained) must be counted among the vote’s positive outcomes. Their usual insistence on taking common positions — both internally and, more or less, with the United States — has left them able to do very little. It is long past due for individual or group diplomatic initiatives to start to make up for the European Union’s long-standing passivity.
The same goes all the more among Middle Eastern countries. The cease-fire that brought the Gaza fighting to an end on November 21 demonstrated what an Arab or Islamic trio can do. Egypt, Turkey, Qatar, and others should not underestimate the influence they have with Palestinians as well as with Israel and the United States. In other words, the legacy of the UN vote might lie less with what Abbas himself chooses to do with it than with what the region enables him to do.