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Washington — But a Palestinian observer, who asked not to be named because of his current position, said Abbas wanted the symbolism and cared less about the end result. “He needed something big that would energize his people,” the observer said.
Daniel Levy, director of the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force, believes that Abbas’s choice of a sure loss at the Security Council over a foolproof win in the G.A. reflected a tacit choice by the Palestinian leader to take the course of least interference with the United States and the peace process. “It was the most gentle move he might have taken,” said Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator. “Abbas never wanted to take Israel to the International Criminal Court.”
While the Palestinians failed to change their legal status in any way, they did succeed, to a certain extent, in changing the peace process dynamics. “They wanted to make a point, to shake things up a bit and to place the negotiations in another light,” said Hussein Ibish, a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. “In that sense, they made their point.”
For Abbas, however, a key reason for launching the move was domestic. And here he gained at least short-term success. After leaked documents offered humiliating revelations about important secret concessions his negotiators had made to Israel during talks with the government of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Abbas “was looking to salvage some domestic legitimacy and to buy some time for himself,” Levy said.
“Domestically, he was strengthened greatly,” Ibish added. But, he stressed, much of this gain was offset by Israel’s October decision to enact a huge prisoner-swap deal with Hamas, the P.A.’s hard-line rival, for the release of Gilad Shalit. “Hamas wanted to undo some of Abass’s achievements, and Israel tried to punish him for his actions,” said Ibish, explaining the impact of the Shalit deal on Palestinian internal politics.
Looking forward, the Palestinians face several options, none of which is seen as having the potential to reignite excitement on the Palestinian streets.
In the U.N., the Palestinians can go ahead with their request for a Security Council vote, only to fail, or they could seek the G.A. upgrade they had previously set aside. The P.A. could also build on its success in becoming a member of UNESCO and seek state-level membership in other U.N. agencies, with a specific focus on the International Atomic Agency, the World Intellectual Property Organization and perhaps the World Health Organization. Congressional legislation obliges the United States to cut its funding to any international organization that recognizes Palestinian statehood unilaterally, outside the framework of a negotiated Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. But the work of some of these organizations is viewed as crucial to national interests of the U.S., and this could put the Americans on the spot.
Another avenue open for Palestinians is to continue reaching out to individual nations for bilateral recognition. This drive was extremely successful in Latin America and could spread to other continents.
One option is viewed as being least likely: renewing direct peace talks with Israel, despite Abbas declaring his willingness to do so, seems to be off the table. A November 14 round of talks held by Quartet envoys in the region led to no progress, and Israelis and Palestinians are as far apart in their positions as they were before the statehood bid.
Meanwhile, the failure in the Security Council brings with it a consolation prize. The Palestinians’ statehood bid outside the framework of negotiating with Israel provoked the ire of American lawmakers, who issued temporary cutbacks in American financial aid if it goes forward. And Israel, following a further move by the P.A. to join UNESCO, another U.N. agency, decided to withhold tax revenue it collects for the P.A. But Congress has now lifted most of the restrictions that blocked funding, and Israel is expected to release the tax revenues after a short period of time, as it has done in the past.
The real price paid by Palestinians could be a loss of favor with America’s administration. Abbas, Makovsky said, “lost an opportunity” in not taking advantage of the Obama administration’s initial momentum to push for a peace deal. “If Obama gets re-elected, this will all be forgotten, but if not, people will not look back at this favorably.”
Contact Nathan Guttman at firstname.lastname@example.org