RAMALLAH, West Bank – After bitter rival Hamas held its own in a fierce battle with Israel, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has no choice but to override U.S. objections and seek U.N. recognition of a state of Palestine next week, his aides said Friday.
But even such recognition, likely to be granted, may not be enough for the Western-backed proponent of non-violence and a peace deal with Israel to stay relevant and counter the soaring popularity of Gaza’s Hamas militants.
Abbas – formally the leader of all Palestinians but only in charge in parts of the West Bank – was in trouble even before being relegated to the role of spectator as Israel and Hamas fought for eight days, starting Nov. 14, then negotiated a truce with the help of Egypt that could lead to easing Israel’s long-standing Gaza border blockade.
By comparison, years of effort by Abbas to negotiate the terms of a Palestinian state with Israel have led nowhere.
His West Bank government has been buckling under the worst cash crisis in its 18-year existence, sparking widespread domestic discontent. And Hamas, which seized Gaza from Abbas in 2007, emerged from regional isolation after the Arab Spring uprisings brought its parent movement, the Muslim Brotherhood, to power in key countries, including Egypt.
The Gaza fighting sharpened trends already evident before, said analyst Nathan Thrall of the International Crisis Group think tank. “Abbas was truly isolated before this, and this [Gaza] conflict looks like a disaster for him,” he said.
Abbas had hoped the U.N. bid will allow him to seize the initiative after years of diplomatic paralysis. Under the plan, the U.N. General Assembly would approve “Palestine” – made up of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in 1967 – as a nonmember observer state.
Palestine is far from being established, but U.N. recognition would affirm its future borders and enable the Palestinians to join U.N. organizations. Israel, backed by the Obama administration, opposes the U.N. bid as an attempt to bypass negotiations.
Abbas says he’s willing to resume talks once the 1967 borders have been recognized as the baseline, something hardline Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refuses to do. Israel, while willing to cede some land, says it will not withdraw to the 1967 lines, and has instead moved half a million Israelis into settlements on war-won land.
Earlier this week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton again urged Abbas in a meeting at his West Bank headquarters to drop the U.N. plan, said Abbas aide Saeb Erekat.
However, Abbas, widely known as Abu Mazen, told Clinton and other recent visitors, including the French and German foreign ministers, that he is determined to move ahead.
Israel’s Gaza offensive “actually pushed Abu Mazen to go to the U.N.,” Erekat said.
Erekat accused Netanyahu of systematically undermining the Palestinian Authority in order to keep his grip on the West Bank, while trying to push Gaza closer to Egypt. The West Bank and Gaza lie on opposite sides of Israel which has prevented virtually all travel and trade between the two territories.
“To stop this strategy, the only avenue is to go to the U.N., and place Palestine as a geographic entity, as a state,” Erekat said.
Abbas is seeking the U.N. vote next Thursday and is expected to win the needed simple majority of those present, his aides say. The Palestinians can count on support from Arab, Muslim and many developing and non-aligned countries. They have been courting European Union member states, many of them skeptical, but it’s not clear if they’ve made inroads there.
Hana Amireh, a PLO official in the West Bank, said he believes Abbas will get some sympathy votes after the Gaza fighting, with the international community increasingly aware of his precarious situation. “What happened in Gaza will convince more countries in the world to support us at the U.N.,” he said.
However, others say Hamas’ battle with Israel has diverted attention from what Abbas had hoped would restore some of his political legitimacy. “This bid is going to be politically and PR-wise less rewarding because of the Gaza war,” said Ghassan Khatib, until recently the Palestinian Authority spokesman.
The fallout from the fighting is also troubling for Abbas in other ways.
Many Palestinians consider Hamas the victor because Israel chose not to send ground troops to Gaza, even after the Islamists fired hundreds of rockets at the Jewish state, including several toward Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, crossing what many had assumed was an Israeli red line.
Israel said it achieved its main objective, halting rocket fire from Gaza, but as part of Egypt’s cease-fire deal also agreed to consider easing Gaza border restrictions.
The message being heard by many West Bankers is that Hamas’ violent ways produce results and that Abbas’ approach of non-violence and negotiations has failed.
Khatib, who returned to academia after his government job, said that at his Bir Zeit University in the West Bank, there are signs of growing radicalization among student activists of Abbas’ Fatah movement.
Fatah gunmen had been involved in clashes with Israeli troops during the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising, a decade ago, but Abbas got them off the streets and into security jobs after becoming president in 2005.
The Facebook page of the Fatah youth movement, Shabibah, this week posted a picture of a Tel Aviv bus bombing that wounded several Israelis, with the caption “Fatah was here,” though a Hamas activist was later arrested as a suspect.
Among younger Fatah activists, there are also growing misgivings over Abbas’ security coordination with Israel in the West Bank, meant to keep a lid on Hamas.
Abbas has been one of the most outspoken opponents of violence, telling an Israeli TV audience this month that “there is no justification for rocket fire from Gaza or anywhere else.”
But with Hamas celebrating victory in Gaza, the militants are now pushing back against Abbas’ crackdown on them in the West Bank.
Hundreds of Hamas supporters took to the streets on Friday, defiantly raising their movement’s green flags, a rare sight in recent years. In Ramallah, Abbas’ seat of government, some 300 Hamas supporters marched in the streets, chanting, “Resistance has won.”
Laub reported from Gaza City, Gaza Strip.