Tel Aviv — For months the Palestinian Authority rode a wave of international anticipation over its bid for United Nations statehood recognition and the possibility of domestic protest. The mere mention of “September,” the timing of the UN General Assembly, was enough to make Israeli politicians uncomfortable.
But now that November is flying by, the Palestinian leadership seems unsure of its next move. Falling short of a majority in the UN Security Council in its bid for membership marked a symbolic failure that has weakened the standing of President Mahmoud Abbas, and he is at a new crossroads, analysts said.
“It was worse than what was expected. They knew that the U.S. would veto,” statehood, said Dror Bar Yosef, an analyst of Palestinian politics. “But the fact that the administration succeeded in denying them a majority is disastrous.”
On Tuesday night, the executive council of the Palestine Liberation Organization was scheduled to meet to debate what next: Should it focus on a resolution in the UN General Assembly, which has little teeth but overwhelming support in the body for the Palestinians? Or should it pursue reconciliation with Hamas, which would win domestic approval but jeopardize international support?
After U.S. efforts to block the Palestinian statehood vote at the Security Council, the Palestinians could seek the status of a non-member state, like the Vatican. But that would leave them outside of club of full membership. They could also possibly seek a resolution calling on the Security Council to reconsider its decision on Palestinian membership. Another option would be to join more UN bodies like UNESCO, which granted the Palestinians membership two weeks ago, triggering a cutoff in U.S. assistance to the cultural organization.
Israeli officials argued that the Palestinian appeal to UNESCO backfired for the statehood push by stirring more anxiety among key countries about the UN bid.
“Countries and UN organs around the world are very scared,” said a former Israeli diplomat. “They don’t want the Palestinians to come to them for membership because they don’t want to be de-funded. They are thinking twice about supporting it.”
Meanwhile, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman crowed at the Palestinian setback, and castigated Israelis for the dire predictions that the UN statehood bid would increase Israel’s isolation.
A few months ago, the Palestinians were globetrotting in an international campaign for their UN push, while Israel was worrying about what was termed a “diplomatic tsunami.” But now Abbas worries that further moves at the UN could do more damage than good, said a person familiar with the Palestinian deliberations.
Despite the fact that Israelis assume that the Palestinians enjoy an automatic majority for nearly any form of resolution in the UN, the expected defeat in the Security Council has weakened Abbas’ political standing at home and undermined confidence about a GA resolution on statehood — which Israeli officials have described in the past as equivalent to a diplomatic “gimme.”
“Nothing is sure so far, especially after the failure in the Security Council,” said Nashat Aqtash, a Bir Zeit University political science professor. Aqtash believes Abbas should focus on reconciliation with a resurgent Hamas and devise a new strategy beyond bilateral talks with Israel.
“Internal reconciliation is a must,” he said. “They tried and they failed [at the UN and negotiations with Israel]. Peaceful settlement of the conflict is not possible, so what should they do? Go back to square one.”
Indeed, on Tuesday night the Associated Press reported that officials from Hamas and Fatah reached a preliminary agreement on two points of contention that blocked implementation of a unity agreement from May.
The two sides reportedly agreed to hold elections in May 2012 and for Prime Minister Salam Fayyad to resign to make way for a consensus leader of an interim government.
Abbas and Hamas leader Khaled Meshal are scheduled to meet next week in Cairo to advance talks on reconciliation. Observers say they haven’t detected any genuine reconciliation between the two dominant Palestinian political forces.
But analysts believe that Abbas is preparing to resign from office in the medium term and is looking for an effective exit strategy. The problem, Palestinian commentators say, is that Abbas wants to be remembered for a political achievement, and he has brought back nothing from the peace talks with Israel or the UN.
Reconciliation with Hamas after a four-year feud might be a fitting achievement to go out on, though the two parties have a long way to go before reaching a full compromise, analysts said.
There is also talk among Palestinians of closing down the Palestinian Authority, a move that raises the specter of Israel having to assume responsibility for administering West Bank cities and footing the bill to the tune of several billion dollars a year. Observers believe that Fatah officials are unlikely to back such a move because it would effectively eliminate public sector jobs that hold up the economy.
A Hamas-aligned Palestinian lawmaker assailed the talk of dismantling the PA as “an act of desperation” by Palestinian officials who want to show constituents that they are standing up to the Israel at a time negotiations are deadlocked. “Dismantling the PA will not serve Palestinians, but stopping cooperation will fulfill our goals,” said Ayman Daraghmeh, a legislative council member from the Hamas-backed Reform and Justice party.
The simultaneous campaign for statehood recognition and threat of dismantling reflects a sort of Palestinian schizophrenia, said Hani el Masry, the head of a Palestinian think tank in Ramallah.
“This indicates a crisis in the Palestinian situation. The PA has been sending contradictory messages,” said Masry, the director of Badael, a Ramallah think tank.
Masry said that Abbas has yet to make a final decision about whether to adopt a new strategy for statehood instead of negotiations.
“He has been hesitating. He can’t continue down the old road,” Masry continued, “and he doesn’t have the courage to take a new road.”