x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

With 'all hell' breaking loose, is Abbas looking for an exit?

Pressure for still more Israeli-Palestinian talks seems pointless when Israel has nothing to offer. But it's easy to suspect that Mahmoud Abbas is seeking a way out.

When the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks of being under "unbearable pressure" from foreign partners, that can be a prelude to retreat.

That was the phrase he used a year ago to explain why he'd joined a new round of talks with the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against his own better judgement. Those talks, demanded by the Obama administration, went nowhere.

A year later there is no reason to believe that the Israelis are willing to offer more than they were then. But the Obama administration is even more determined this time around that Mr Abbas should be talking to Mr Netanyahu rather than seeking UN support for Palestinian statehood. And so we're hearing similar talk from Mr Abbas now.

"We decided to take this step and all hell has broken out against us," Mr Abbas complained to reporters en route to New York, although his intentions were somewhat ambiguous. "From now until I give the speech, we have only one choice: going to the Security Council. Afterwards, we will sit and decide."

His speech will be to the UN General Assembly on Friday, the same day that the PLO formally asks the Security Council to recognise Palestine as a UN member-state. That won't happen, of course: if need be, the US will use its veto to kill the measure, although it is hoping it won't have to by aggressively lobbying to prevent the Palestinians from marshalling nine "yes" votes.

But such an outcome would be so humiliating to President Abbas that it would not serve US and Israeli interests, which depend on his continued rule in the West Bank. So the more likely response at the Security Council is to refer the matter to a technical committee, deferring any vote (or veto) by weeks or even months during which time more pressure can be brought for new talks.

As long as the Palestinians confine themselves to the Security Council, their statehood request could be "parked" in procedural limbo long after this week's spotlight has faded.

Much will hinge on what Mr Abbas decides after the Friday speech. Does he take the matter to the UN General Assembly, where the issue would win an overwhelming majority of member states? That move would possibly win the support of some of the Western European powers that will abstain on a Security Council vote, depending on the content of the resolution. While this option can't make Palestine a member state it can upgrade Palestinians' UN status and, more importantly, provide significant leverage in future talks.

Mr Netanyahu looks a lot more confident than Mr Abbas, urging the Palestinian leader to meet with him in New York. But this is pure theatrics on the part of an Israeli leader trying to present himself as a peacemaker, even if his own peace terms are well short of what the international community requires. Still, Mr Abbas might find himself bullied and bribed into yet another photo opportunity.

But there's something dangerously deluded in the US demand for an immediate resumption of direct talks. The gulf between the two sides, coupled with the imbalance of leverage between them and the reluctance of the US to apply any pressure on Israel, makes the outcome of any new talks right now a foregone conclusion.

"It is hard to understand how negotiations can help get the parties out of their fix when (failed) negotiations are what led them there in the first place," wrote the International Crisis Group in a trenchant analysis of the standoff this week. "Restarting talks now to prevent a so-called train wreck [at the UN] could well provoke a more dangerous crash when negotiations collapse."

It's nothing short of astounding to see the US ditch any pretence of being an honest broker, and instead mount a frenzied campaign to block the Palestinian effort without a single new concession from Israel. Mr Netanyahu has given Mr Obama nothing to work with, but he could still return home victorious in the eyes of his own people, having headed off a decisive UN demonstration of support for the Palestinians.

European diplomats are privately concerned that the more successful the effort to spook Mr Abbas into retreat, the more it reinforces Mr Netanyahu's determination to push back even further against the international consensus on terms for a two-state solution. And anything that looks like a defeat for Mr Abbas could also have dire consequences.

"If he were to postpone it or settle for an essentially symbolic UN resolution and then return to bilateral talks without a settlement freeze, (Mr Abbas) would likely face a crippling domestic challenge by constituents who have long lost any faith in negotiations," the Crisis Group writes. "Most Palestinians do not strongly support the UN bid; but they would strongly oppose a decision to retract it without suitable compensation."

There may therefore be some European support for Mr Abbas going to the General Assembly, to seek support for a resolution that codifies the international consensus on the terms for a two-state solution, even if Washington and Israel are opposed. Many European diplomats are well aware that Israel is no longer likely to move willingly to a solution based on the 1967 borders.

And that's the underlying reality that neither negotiations nor a UN vote can address. The issue for most Palestinians is not the status of their UN delegation, but ending the choke-hold of the occupation. The spectacle of US diplomats scurrying around on behalf of Israel is a reminder that there's no significant downside for the Israelis maintaining the occupation.

The UN strategy will be meaningful only to the extent that it helps the Palestinians muster the leverage to raise the cost of Israel's occupation. But to the extent to which it breaks the US monopoly on peacemaking and moves the issue into the international arena, this week's UN vote could be an important start.


Tony Karon is an analyst based in New York. Follow him on Twitter @tonykaron