Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 19 September 2019

Palestinian leader looks to UN for relevance with peace process moribund

Sidelined by the US, Mahmoud Abbas could use New York visit to revive moves toward statehood

Palestine's President Mahmoud Abbas arrives to address the General Debate of the 73rd session of the General Assembly of the United Nations at United Nations Headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 27 September 2018. EPA
Palestine's President Mahmoud Abbas arrives to address the General Debate of the 73rd session of the General Assembly of the United Nations at United Nations Headquarters in New York, New York, USA, 27 September 2018. EPA

After a year that encompassed US cuts to aid funding, estrangement from the Trump administration and poor personal health, President Mahmoud Abbas will arrive at the United Nations tomorrow on the eve of a rare positive moment for the Palestinian cause.

By taking the chairmanship of the Group of 77, an alliance of developing nations at the UN, Palestine will become the first non member state to do so, opening avenues for greater diplomatic engagement and possibly a renewed bid for statehood at the global body.

Palestine, which the UN General Assembly granted permanent observer status in 2012, will succeed Egypt at the head of the G77, an entity established in 1964 with the aim of bolstering its members' clout.

Founding countries included Arab heavyweights Saudi Arabia, Syria and Iraq, southern and Latin American giants Brazil and Venezuela, and much of Africa and Asia. Although it has since grown to 134 nations the G77 name remains, partly because China does not acknowledge itself as a member despite taking part in the group's deliberations.

Mr Abbas will meet UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres in New York on Monday. A ceremony the next day will see the Palestinian president formally take the chairmanship of the G77 for the next 12 months, with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry among the invited guests.

Mr Abbas will be hoping the G77 can help the Palestinian Authority, which governs the West Bank under an Israeli occupation, gain much-needed international support at a time when hopes for peace in the decades-long conflict have rarely been lower.

The UN group's members account for 80 per cent of the world's population and they frequently take the same position when voting in the General Assembly. While serving as leader of the G77, Palestine will be able to co-sponsor proposals and amendments while using the forum to make statements and raise matters of concern at the UN.

With such proposals and measures being non-binding, however, the chairmanship is more likely to be of symbolic value at a time when US foreign policy is dominated by countering Iran and a promised but highly confused military withdrawal from Syria.

Israel has also sought to delegitimise the bloc of developing nations since the announcement of Palestine’s ascension to its leadership. Israeli ambassador to the UN Danny Danon in July last year said it would now “become a platform for spreading lies and incitement”, a regular Israeli claim about Palestinian diplomacy at the international level.

“More than anything, President Abbas is trying to draw attention to himself and to Palestinian aims, which are largely seen as marginal right now,” said Robert Danin, former US deputy assistant secretary of state with responsibility for Israeli-Palestinian affairs.

“We have just seen the US Secretary of State meet a host of Arab leaders and the Palestinian issue did not register. It is not at the core of Arab policy any more,” he continued. “This week could allow Mr Abbas, at the UN, to play to an audience that shares his view of the US as being too far aligned with Israel.”

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Palestine's chairmanship was overwhelmingly voted for by members of the General Assembly in October last year. Israel and the US opposed the move.

Ahead of Mr Abbas's visit, Israel has petitioned members of the Security Council to try and shut down any prospect of a renewed Palestinian bid for statehood. The pre-emptive move is aimed at preventing the US having to use its veto power to reject a statehood request. The administration of President Barack Obama did so during the last such attempt by Mr Abbas in 2014, with the US insisting that only a two-state solution negotiated between both sides should bring about any recognition of a Palestinian state.

Matters have since gotten much worse for the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah.

The Trump administration last year broke with longstanding US policy by moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and cut all financial support to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. It has also failed to condemn Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the desired capital of a future Palestinian state. All have deepened the Palestinian belief that any US peace plan will inflict further damage by favouring Israel.

Mr Abbas's own position has also attracted criticism. The 83-year-old was elected to a four-year term in January 2005 but is now in his 14th year at the helm of the Palestinian Authority.

Aged 83, he was hospitalised several times last year, adding to perceptions that he is no longer fit enough to do his job.

But the lack of US engagement – the Trump administration shuttered the Palestinians' diplomatic mission in Washington last year – is considered the biggest factor in peace hopes appearing moribund. Mr Abbas has said the Trump administration's Middle East peace plan is a non starter and has cut all public contact with Washington over his policies.

Forthcoming elections in Israel are likely to see the plan’s rollout delayed until at least late spring or summer.

“The indications are very inauspicious,” said Mr Danin, now a senior fellow for Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and the Belfer Center at Harvard, describing the repeatedly delayed US plan as unlikely to receive any embrace from Israel or the Palestinians. Far from being the “deal of the century” as President Donald Trump has promised, it could even be counter productive.

“The longer that this plan is not released the better,” Mr Danin added. “Releasing it at this time, when neither party is in a position to accept something that would involve significant concessions, would be a mistake that would only add to disillusionment.”

The G77 gives Mr Abbas an opportunity in New York to deliver a rejoiner to Israel and the US. Last week, he vowed that he would not end his life "a traitor" by succumbing to the policies of Mr Trump and Mr Netanyahu, and this may just be the start of his fightback before he departs the international stage.

Updated: January 14, 2019 02:56 AM

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