June 28, 2012 | Foreign Policy

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

June 28, 2012 | Foreign Policy

If at First You Don’t Succeed…

The Palestinians may appeal to the United Nations for statehood. Again.

That was the message out of Ramallah on Sunday, June 24, when Fatah, the dominant Palestinian faction in the West Bank, concluded a meeting of its congress.

If you listened closely, you might have heard a collective head slap halfway around the world at Foggy Bottom. The U.S. State Department fought hard last year to derail this very process at the annual U.N. General Assembly meeting in Manhattan. The Palestinians delivered their request, but failed to garner enough support in the Security Council, thanks to heavy U.S. and Canadian lobbying. U.S. diplomats then prevailed upon the Palestinians to shelve their application for nonmember observer status, which would have granted them some of the rights afforded to sovereign states, including the ability to sue the Israelis for war crimes at the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

The Palestinians backed down last year. This year, they may not take no for an answer.

Although deposed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak once single-handedly reined in Palestinian adventurism and prodded Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas back to the negotiating table, his successor, Muslim Brotherhood leader Mohamed Morsi, may not follow suit. To put it mildly, encouraging diplomacy with the Israelis has never been part of the Brotherhood's platform.

Even if the military retains full control of foreign policy in Egypt (a likely scenario for the foreseeable future), it is still doubtful that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces will stand in the way of the Palestinian statehood campaign. Indeed, it's doubtful that any Arab state will. With the Arab Spring in full bloom, regional supporters of Palestinian-Israeli diplomacy have long since scurried for cover.

Abbas now cites Israeli settlement activity as the reason he refuses to negotiate. It was never a red line for him in the past, but it's now a convenient formula for him that can't lose. Palestinians support it. And you hear no complaints from the region, where anti-Israel rhetoric is growing increasingly strident.

According to Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, the PLO, which is leading the charge to Turtle Bay, is now following the lead of a different regional player: Qatar. In late March, Erekat announced that the Palestinian leadership had reached an agreement with Doha to try again at the U.N. Other Palestinian insiders confirm that the Qataris are leading the charge, and one former official says they're even funding the legal effort for the PLO, producing analysis on the costs and benefits of the statehood initiative.

Throughout the spring, in one way or another, Palestinian officials affirmed this new, yet familiar strategy. For example, Abbas told Tunisian representatives as much in late April, and an unnamed Palestinian official echoed the same sentiments to Xinhua in May. Citing this anonymous source, the Chinese news agency reported that Abbas was “drumming up support for another battle in the United Nations to get a recognition of an independent Palestinian state.”

Behind the scenes, the Palestinians have even tried to lay a foundation for the coming showdown in September. Hillary Zaken of the Times of Israel first reported that Abbas was angling to use the U.N.'s Rio+20 conference on sustainable development, held June 20 to 22 in Brazil, “to advance the PA's status in the eyes of the international community.” Indeed, Abbas wanted Palestine to be identified as nothing less than a state at the conference, despite the fact that the U.N. had not yet done so. The Palestinian ambassador to Brazil, Ibrahim Alzeben, later admitted that he was angling for “full-status participation,” while Israel, the United States, and Canada were reportedly fighting this on the sidelines, and apparently prevailed.

Similarly, in early June, the same three countries cried foul when Palestinian U.N. observer Riyad Mansour was treated as a representative of a state during a meeting of signatories to the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea. As the U.N.'s online summary account notes, the Canadian delegation protested where the Palestinian observer was seated, noting that it “did not recognize a Palestinian State” and that the seating arrangement “might create a 'misleading impression.'”

The Palestinians, notwithstanding such resistance from the Great White North, actually have broad international support for their initiative. The PLO's Negotiations Affairs Department claims that 128 countries back the notion of a Palestinian state, and the number could be as high as 140. Either way, this is enough support at the General Assembly, in the words of Abbas during a recent trip to Paris, “to obtain the status of nonmember state, as is the case for the Vatican.”

But Abbas will need to weigh this international support against the wall of resistance he's getting from Washington. In an interview with the Saudi Okaz newspaper, Erekat said that U.S. President Barack Obama's administration was threatening to suspend aid and close down the PLO mission in Washington if the Palestinians returned to the U.N.

Obama cannot afford to stand back and watch the Palestinians play for statehood as he campaigns for his reelection. If the Palestinians make it across the finish line at the General Assembly, Obama's domestic critics will charge that he threw Israel under the bus.

According to Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki, the Obama administration has instructed the Palestinians to sit tight until after the presidential election. Abbas has since expressed unease about going back to the U.N. before November. But he also has his own considerations at home, where he's under fire on a few fronts.

For one, his spat with the rival Hamas faction is deeply unpopular. While Abbas continues to pay lip service to reconciliation with the Islamist group that overran Gaza in 2007, most Palestinians realize that the likelihood of a unity government is next to nil. With the Muslim Brotherhood having won the Egyptian presidency, Hamas (a Brotherhood splinter) believes it has gained more leverage, and it is therefore even less likely to compromise with Abbas on the terms of a unity government.

No less important a factor is Abbas's witch hunt for his political foes. In the past few months, he has gone after longtime allies of former Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat, including Mohammad Dahlan and Mohammed Rashid, charging them with corruption. Abbas's enemies have fired back, alleging that Abbas is himself guilty of wrongdoing, ranging from maintaining illicit slush funds in Jordan to illegally influencing the Palestinian judiciary. With accusations flying on a daily basis, Abbas has found himself knee-deep in muck of his own creation.

It may be months before things quiet down. In the meantime, Abbas knows he has to do something to shore up his leadership. Even if he escapes judgment on corruption, he is now — in the midst of the Arab Spring — already long past his legitimate presidential term, which officially expired in January 2009. He knows that Arab populations continue to challenge their leaders over political and economic stagnation. He can always blame Israel for the woes of the Palestinian people, but the argument only goes so far.

Abbas, now 77, smokes more than a pack of cigarettes a day, and he is keenly aware of the passing of time. He has failed to deliver peace. He has failed to deliver unity. Statehood may be his last opportunity to leave any meaningful legacy.

September may be his moment. Again. But it may also be the moment where Washington blocks him. Again.

Jonathan Schanzer is vice president for research at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and author of Hamas vs. Fatah: The Struggle for Palestine.

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