If you think the last couple of weeks have empowered Hamas, empowered the Israeli right, and harmed the chances of Israeli-Palestinian peace, just wait. Things are about to get worse.
They’re about to get worse because this Thursday, on the 65th anniversary of the United Nations resolution to partition British Mandatory Palestine, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas plans to ask the U.N. General Assembly to recognize Palestine as a “nonmember state.” For Abbas, going to the U.N. makes all the sense in the world. For years, he’s been doing what the United States has asked. He’s cooperated with Israel against terrorism. He’s affirmed Israel’s right to exist. But it’s gotten him nowhere. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to continue the negotiations that Abbas was conducting with his predecessor Ehud Olmert, negotiations both men say were close to fruition. Netanyahu has publicly rejected U.S. President Barack Obama’s suggestion that the goal of talks be the creation of a Palestinian state near the 1967 lines. And Israeli settlement growth continues, making Palestinians ever more pessimistic that a Palestinian state is still possible.
Meanwhile, Hamas grows stronger. Last fall, its 2006 abduction of Gilad Shalit led to the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners. This fall, its rocket fire on Israel appears to have won greater freedom of movement for Gazan farmers and fisherman. More Middle Eastern governments are recognizing Hamas rule, and its popularity is growing, including in the West Bank. So it’s hardly surprising that Abbas sees a bid for U.N. recognition as a last chance to bolster his support and show Palestinians that the path of nonviolence, and recognition of Israel’s existence, still offers hope. Close observers say Abbas plans to use his victory at the General Assembly to jettison his condition that Israel freeze settlement growth and finally begin serious peace talks.
But in practice, Abbas’s bid will likely have exactly the opposite effect. For one thing, the Obama administration has no interest in using Abbas’s U.N. bid to restart serious talks right now. Partly, it’s a question of personnel. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is on her way out. Dennis Ross, who coordinated Mideast policy at the National Security Council, left a year ago and has not been replaced. The office of the Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, formerly led by George Mitchell, barely functions anymore. In the words of one Democratic Middle East insider, “There is currently no one in the [U.S.] government who works on the peace process. If America wanted to make a move, you’d literally have to hire someone.” Even among those Obama-administration officials who do focus on Israel-Palestinian issues, it’s taken for granted that the United States cannot launch any initiatives until Israeli elections early next year.
In their effort to convince Abbas to shelve his U.N. bid, Obama officials have dangled no U.S. initiatives to restart the peace process. What they’ve offered instead is threats that if Abbas pushes forward at the U.N., then Israel, and Congress, will retaliate harshly. U.S. officials have told the Palestinians that, as one close observer puts it, “it’s not going to be like last time [Abbas went to the U.N.]. If this happens again, you’ll be fucked. You’ll lose your funding.”
Rationally, it makes no sense for Israel, or Congress, to retaliate against Abbas’s U.N. bid by starving the Palestinian Authority of funds, since the Authority is cooperating with Israel to prevent terrorism from the West Bank. But Congress froze $200 million in funding for the Palestinian Authority after Abbas’s U.N. bid last year, and the Obama administration only unfroze it with behind-the-scenes Israeli help.
This time, the retaliation would likely be more severe because Abbas’s U.N. bid is more threatening. After gaining nonmember-state status at the U.N. General Assembly, Abbas can seek entrance into the International Criminal Court, which could give Palestinians the right to sue Israel for its conduct in the West Bank. It’s also election season in Israel. Israeli observers speculate that Netanyahu may retaliate more aggressively this time to mollify a right-wing base unhappy that he agreed too quickly to a Gaza ceasefire.
To Netanyahu’s right, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been urging Israel to respond to Abbas’s U.N. bid by toppling the Palestinian leader. American officials doubt Netanyahu would do that. But they worry that he’ll withhold tax revenues that Israel collects on the Palestinian Authority’s behalf. The Jerusalem Post has reported that Obama officials also fear Israel might respond to Abbas’s bid by building settlements in an area of the West Bank called E1, which would destroy any hope of creating a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem. Netanyahu could also legalize some West Bank outposts currently illegal under Israeli law, as proposed in a report by former Supreme Court vice president Edmond Levy in June.
The Palestinian Authority is already in crisis. It can barely pay its employees. It’s been battling protests since the Gaza War began. Abbas himself has repeatedly threatened to resign. And according to Haaretz, he recently told U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that if Israel retaliates against his U.N. bid, “I will invite Netanyahu to the Muqata [the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters] in Ramallah and I will give him the keys.
Is Abbas bluffing? Who knows. But the legitimacy of his power, and his will to retain it, are both in steep decline. This week’s U.N. bid makes the Palestinian Authority’s collapse more likely than ever before. And if the Palestinian Authority collapses, the danger Israel has been facing in the Gaza Strip could soon pale before the danger it faces in the West Bank.