x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

UN vote requires Palestinian unity

At the UN last week Mahmoud Abbas moved towards breaking a stalemate with Israel. Now he needs to turn to his own people, and lead in a time of opportunity.

What is certain is that Mahmoud Abbas has given Palestinians new hope. His speech before the General Assembly on Friday drove home the case for UN recognition of Palestine based on self-evident principles of justice. The applause from members left no doubt about international opinion and, in Ramallah, some of the people with the most at stake roared their approval.

But where this groundbreaking initiative goes now is an open question. The UN Security Council approval process is a bureaucratic maze, which will almost certainly end badly. It is still unclear whether the General Assembly will vote on the issue. And diplomats are working at full tilt to convince the Palestinian Authority to return to negotiations, which Mr Abbas rightly recognises are meaningless given this Israeli administration's intransigence and continued settlement building.

All of these are reasons in favour of UN recognition. But as international diplomacy moves forward, Palestinian unity remains the overriding priority. While the crowds in the West Bank were wholehearted in their support, some weeping openly, people in the Gaza Strip expressed a more quiet support. Hamas remains opposed to the UN bid and, despite that recalcitrance, it cannot be forgotten that 1.5 million Palestinians in the blockaded Strip have an equal stake and equal rights in this movement forward.

Hamas may be trapped by its instinctive opposition to the Palestinian Authority, but it can be hoped that Mr Abbas and his colleagues can use their momentum to reach out to Palestinians in Gaza. Hamas and Fatah are still miles apart despite last April's statements about reconciliation. The popular Palestinian movements in both the West Bank and Gaza that prompted that surface detente should hold both sides accountable at this crucial moment.

Mr Abbas has moved towards breaking a stalemate that has seen Israel steadily erode Palestinian interests. Now he needs to turn to his own people, to lead in a time of opportunity, but also to manage expectations. This should be the beginning of a process at the United Nations, not the conclusion, and Mr Abbas must ask his people for patience.

"Our efforts are not aimed at isolating Israel or delegitimising it," Mr Abbas said. "Rather we want to gain legitimacy for the cause of the people of Palestine." We know the UN General Assembly will back Palestine if given the chance. It has been a long time coming, and the Palestinian cause now has an extraordinary opportunity.