United Nations

Abbas’s Symbolic Victory

The U.N. is likely to support the Palestinian Authority’s bid to become a non-member state.

Mahmoud Abbas’s bid at the United Nations General Assembly on Thursday seeking the recognition of the Palestinian Authority as a non-member state is likely to succeed. But the move by the Palestinian president, which is supported by an overwhelming number of U.N. states, may turn out to be little more than a symbolic victory for the moderate Abbas, whose overall goal—an independent Palestine—remains elusive.

Abbas’s symbolic victory would have some practical significance. It would allow a Palestinian state the right to systematically appeal to the International Criminal Court against Israeli officials and policies. On the other hand, it will also allow Israel to sue the Palestinian state for acts of terrorism. An internationally recognized Palestinian state would also put an end to the latest Israeli legal maneuver claiming that the Israeli Army is not an illegally occupying the West Bank.

Exactly 65 years ago, the U.N. General Assembly approved a partition plan, heralding the end of the British Mandate and the establishment of an independent Jewish state in roughly two thirds of the land contested by Israelis and Palestinians. The Palestinian Authority hopes this same date will signify a crucial stage in the establishment of an internationally recognized Palestinian state.

After last year’s failure to enter the United Nations through the front door as a full member of the international community, Abbas is desperate to leave a legacy. Deeply frustrated by the failure to advance peace talks with Israel, the weakened Palestinian government urgently needs an achievement to point to as it confronts both growing civilian resentment in the West Bank and the increasing political clout of Hamas following the latest hostilities with Israel in Gaza.

The immediate outcome of Abbas’s likely success is nothing short of an Israeli diplomatic embarrassment. Israel has vehemently opposed this move, threatening to implement drastic sanctions against the Palestinian Authority. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hawkish foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, must now accept the Palestinians’ tactical victory.

Israel is already calling today’s vote nothing but an empty declaration. Former ambassador to the U.N., Dore Gold, says the move is a material breach of the Oslo Accords and further suggests that Abbas is using this vote “as a way of moving further down the road of unilateralism instead of negotiations.” Not all Israelis agree. Former prime minister Ehud Olmert and former deputy defense minister Ephraim Sneh, for example, have both openly endorsed the bid, claiming that the U.S. and Israel should provide support and that Congress must not cut aid to the Palestinian Authority.

Ironically, in just two weeks Israel has succeeded in upgrading the international status of both Hamas and its political rival, Abbas's secular Fatah Party. Throughout Israel's latest operation in Gaza, the international community made little protest. But on Thursday, most members of the European Union appeared ready to support Abbas’s bid including longstanding Israeli allies such as France. The U.S. publicly criticized Abbas's appeal, but has thus far avoided attempting to punish the Palestinian Authority. If Israel attempts to retaliate with sanctions against the Palestinian Authority, analysts say the move would be widely condemned around the globe and further weaken the moderate Abbas and thereby strengthen Hamas, the Islamic group that controls Gaza.

Despite a bevy of celebrations in the West Bank on Thursday, considerable skepticism remains as to the efficacy of Abbas’s bid at the U.N. “Palestinians might be euphoric for the moment, but the morning after they will wake up to find they are living the same reality with the same economic hardships,” said Ghassan Khatib, former Palestinian official and a leading political commentator.

Abbas appears painfully aware that there is still a long way to go toward true independence and an even longer way to go for a peaceful solution in the region. If a renewal of negotiations with Israel does not begin soon, analysts say this frustration may escalate into a new surge of violence, a possibility that the Middle East can ill afford.