Multiple dilemmas make for a subdued Abbas

By Jonathan Cummings, October 4, 2012
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Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority, brought a familiar charge-sheet against Israel in his speech to the United Nations General Assembly, but failed to articulate the “new approach” he said was needed to restart peace talks.

Speaking as the representative of “an angry people”, he demanded that Israeli policy be “condemned, punished and boycotted” by the international community. His headline proposal, to seek support for non-state membership of the UN, is a watered-down version of last year’s thwarted bid for full recognition.

The Palestinians claim their upgraded status would help to define the terms of final status talks with Israel. They may also be hoping that membership would allow them to ask the International Criminal Court to rule on the legality of Israeli policy. For both these reasons, Israel will oppose non-state membership as strongly as they opposed last year’s application to the Security Council.

Yet, while neither his rhetoric nor his policy is likely to advance peace efforts, Mr Abbas’s strategy of seeking international support may be his least bad option at the moment. However marginal the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is to the international agenda at present, his position at home is even less promising.

Meeting with the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah ahead of his visit to New York, Mr Abbas had unusually harsh words for the PLO factions — including his own Fatah party — for fomenting a wave of popular protests against rising prices and against him personally that shook the West Bank this summer. They, not rivals Hamas, were to blame, he said. He hinted at the risk of further unrest in his UN speech, noting that 77 per cent of Palestinians are under the age of 35.

Mr Abbas also faces a dilemma in pursuing a domestically popular agreement to resolve the split between Hamas and the PA. Talks are on hold, but a unity deal would make the resumption of talks all but impossible, as well as endanger relations with the US.

Arab states, too, are limiting his options. Fearing open disagreements, he made brief visits only to Cairo and Amman in preparation for this week’s speech, unlike his extensive regional and international tours of last year. He faced specific calls from some Arab states not to ask the Assembly to vote on the bid at least until after the US elections.

Jonathan Cummings is a commentator on Israeli politics, based in New York

Last updated: 8:15pm, October 4 2012