Road to Statehood

Why Mahmoud Abbas Will Win at the United Nations

The Palestinian leader goes before the General Assembly today—and he’s sure to emerge triumphant, says Rula Jebreal.

John Moore / Getty Images

One year ago, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas went before the United Nations Security Council and submitted a bid for Palestinian statehood. It was largely an act of performance, designated to drum up domestic support and draw international attention back to Palestine. Due to the guaranteed U.S. veto, the bid was dead on arrival.

Today, Abbas will go before the General Assembly and seek upgraded status as a non-member observer state. Destined to pass with overwhelming international support, the outcome will be a political and legal nightmare for Israel. Palestine will be able to become a member of the International Criminal Court, which will permit the ICC to investigate any Israeli action within the Occupied Territories, including settlement activity.

Abbas’s bid is the result of the failure to make any progress toward a political settlement. The 2011 bid for statehood was a warning shot by Abbas—however, a year has gone by and nothing has changed except that Netanyahu has become more hawkish than ever. There has been no negotiation, no settlement freeze, and Israel continues to cement its military control of the West Bank. Gaza remains under siege, its economy strangled by the Israeli blockade.

It is clear that Israel is not willing to negotiate. While systematically ignoring the Palestinian issue altogether, Israel sabotages the potential for a settlement by creating facts on the ground that make it impossible to design a sovereign Palestinian state. The result has been two markedly different responses by the Palestinian factions. Abbas, desperate to return to the negotiating table, has acceded to Israeli demands to rein in extremists in the West Bank by building solid security forces, while Hamas has turned to violence and to launching rockets from Gaza.

The irony is hard to miss. Israel claims that it wants security in return for peace, but has snubbed Abbas while negotiating a ceasefire with Hamas. By provoking an Israeli response, Hamas is more empowered than ever, while Abbas and the Palestinian moderates have become increasingly marginalized.

It is unsurprising that Abbas is looking for a new weapon in the form of upgraded status. The recent bombardment of Gaza, combined with Israel’s continued policy of ignoring Abbas, has only solidified the need for alternative tools to push Israel’s attention back to the PA. This bid is not only designed to give Abbas increased leverage with Israel, but also to improve his discredited image among Palestinians and bolster his credentials as a leader.

The only player capable of pushing both sides towards a realistic political settlement is the Obama administration. The U.S. staunchly opposes the PA bid for upgraded status, however it does so to its detriment. This approach is representative of the overall failure of American leadership on the Palestinian issue.

The question that the U.S. must ask is whether it wants to empower moderates or the more violent Palestinian factions. The status quo will only help Hamas and other extremist groups, and demonstrates the dysfunction and double standards of American foreign policy in the region. During the Arab Spring, the U.S. provided strong diplomatic support to protesters, and even intervened militarily in Libya. However, it continues to turn a blind eye toward expanding Israeli settlements and many other abuses.

Abbas will not police the Palestinians on behalf of the Israelis anymore. The Palestinian status bid shows that Abbas has moved away from seeking a solution brokered by the U.S. He is placing faith in the international community, and the empowerment of institutions such as the ICC will only diminish the U.S. influence in future negotiations.