Abbas’s September Gambit and Beyond

It is often said in the Middle East, that in the end we always come back to the Arab-Israeli issue. It seems that we are back there again.

The question of Palestine is promising high drama with President Abbas’s insistence that he will go to the United Nations to seek recognition of a Palestinian state. His decision to go to the UN Security Council with the backing of the Arab League and regional power, Turkey, will start a high-stakes game of diplomatic brinkmanship as the Middle East is already reeling from tumultuous political changes.

As Abbas pointed out in his speech in Ramallah on Friday, the clock started last September when President Obama expressed his hope to the UN General Assembly that, “when we come back here next year, we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations—an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”

The past year, however, has shown that any prospect of an agreement between Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu is wishful thinking. Netanyahu has successfully stared down the U.S. president, particularly on the issue of illegal settlement building in the West Bank. He and Israelis in general are more focused on the rising threats to Israel’s security as a result of the Arab Awakenings.

Abbas has doggedly stuck to his belief that negotiations are futile as long as the combination of Netanyahu’s obduracy and Obama’s impotence persists, and that a more promising path lies in counting up the votes for Palestine at the UN. Abbas is effectively changing the terms of reference for peacemaking. He has opted for “internationalizing” efforts to end Israel’s occupation in an attempt to level the playing field in future negotiations with the Israelis. In doing so, he is seeking the end of a mismanaged process of U.S.-led peace-making. The American monopoly over peace-making may be coming to an end, and nobody knows what will replace it.

The Palestinians have launched a campaign entitled “Palestine as Country 194,” to rally the Palestinian people. Whipping up public sentiment has led to questions about whether Abbas is creating the conditions for violence. He has maintained that such protests will be non-violent, in keeping with Palestinians’ calls for justice and dignity and those of other Arabs throughout the region.

Nobody, not even the Palestinians, is clear how things will work out at the UN. Contrary to conventional wisdom, Abbas’s decision to go to the Security Council may not lead to a quick vote in September. Instead, the Presidency of the Council will likely pass on the request to a “Committee on the Admission of New Members,” which comprises all 15 members of the Security Council. While “death by UN Committee” is a plausible scenario, more likely is a vote in the Council after weeks if not months of deliberations.

If a vote in the Security Council does illicit a U.S. veto, as is looking likely, the Palestinians will have to re-examine their options. One would be to call a special vote of the UN General Assembly under the “Uniting for Peace” resolution. In this case, a two-thirds majority of UN Member States could override the U.S. veto in the Security Council. Another option would be to return, if necessary repeatedly, to the Security Council. Bottom line is that this issue is likely to run and run. Palestinians have pointed out that Israel’s membership in the UN took five months of discussions, while countries like Spain and Japan were not even granted membership in the first attempt.

Abbas’s “with us” or “against us” strategy will impact on the United States and the Europeans in particular. Surely, neither wants to face the prospect of being isolated on an issue which matters hugely to a resurgent Arab public. Already, 126 states have indicated that they would support full Palestinian membership if it came to a vote in the UN General Assembly.

A U.S. veto in the Security Council, in particular, would have a devastating impact on its standing in the region and the Muslim world more broadly. The small gains that have been made in supporting popular uprisings in Egypt, Libya and Syria will likely be wiped out. In fact, the United States may emerge as the biggest loser in the Arab Awakenings.

The 27-nation EU bloc is in as big a bind. Its efforts to dissuade Abbas in pursuing the Security Council option have failed. It is now a matter of debate whether the Palestinians have lost key EU states such as France and Germany in any vote in the Security Council. Abbas’s decision will likely divide the bloc in three between those who support a vote for statehood, those who have declared against, and those who may have to flip a coin.

Abbas has promised that he will formally submit his request to the UN Secretary-General after his address to the UN General Assembly on 23 September. His gambit will be nearly 61 years after it was first raised in UN General Assembly Resolution 181, which proposed a UN Partition Plan for Palestine, two states—Israel and Palestine.

On the ground, the breakdown between Ankara’s relations with Israel and the attack against Israel’s embassy in Cairo provide a prelude of things to come. As the United States and other members of the Security Council grapple over the issue, a drawn out disagreement at the UN can only heighten tension further. More worryingly, it seems that neither the parties nor the international community have a plan for what comes after September.