For Palestinian leader, stakes higher after Israel-Hamas clash

Palestinian security officers in Jenin, West Bank, make their way down a building adorned with a banner bearing images of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas, left, and his late predecessor, Yasser Arafat.
(Mohammed Ballas / Associated Press)

JERUSALEM — Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is virtually certain to win passage Thursday of a United Nations General Assembly resolution upgrading the status of the Palestinian territories from “observer entity” to “nonmember observer state” in the international body.

But he won’t have much time to bask in the diplomatic victory.


This month’s eight-day clash between Israel and the Islamist militant movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip provided fresh momentum for Abbas’ U.N. campaign while also raising the stakes for what was once seen largely as a symbolic step to jump-start peace talks and rattle Israel into making concessions.

Many Palestinians are already looking ahead to see what Abbas, head of the secular Fatah faction — a rival of Hamas — in the West Bank, does after the U.N. vote.

The United States, Europe and Israel hope Abbas will reengage in a U.S.-sponsored peace process. Abbas, a longtime proponent of direct negotiations with Israel, has said he would be ready to return to the negotiating table the day after a U.N. vote if Israel agreed to halt its West Bank settlement construction.

But after the recent Gaza conflict, which Palestinians generally viewed as a victory, there is renewed pressure on Abbas to step back from his pursuit of bilateral peace talks. Some Palestinians believe he should embrace a more confrontational strategy, using the territories’ upgraded status to go after Israel in a variety of international courts and forums.

Under this approach, Palestinians would brush aside American and European preferences for resuming talks, and instead challenge settlement construction in the International Criminal Court, organize international sanctions against Israel, call for commercial and academic boycotts or sponsor massive nonviolent demonstrations.

Abbas’ government has offered only lukewarm support for such measures and its security forces have suppressed popular demonstrations out of fear that they would get out of hand.

It remains to be seen whether the 77-year-old Abbas is charting a new course, or just considering doing so as a way to gain leverage.

“Abbas never reveals his moves,” said Ziad abu Amr, an Abbas advisor and former Palestinian Authority Cabinet minister who predicted Abbas would move slowly and cautiously. “He is not going to take Israel to court any time soon.”

Others say Abbas may be running out of time. He has little to show for his devotion to peace talks for 20 years and his popularity is sinking as a result. A September poll showed that he would come in third place in a presidential race behind jailed Palestinian leader Marwan Barghouti and Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh.

That may explain why Abbas has displayed a growing stubbornness and defiance that has surprised Americans and Israelis and delighted Palestinians. He refused to buckle under U.S. pressure last week to delay or postpone the U.N. bid. This week British officials said they would vote for the resolution only if Abbas agreed to give up the right to join the ICC and return to peace talks without preconditions. So far he has refused, Palestinian officials said.

Analysts say Abbas realizes that he must either ride the tide of change moving through the Middle East or be swept away by it. The recent Gaza fighting challenged Abbas to take bolder and more aggressive steps to compete with Hamas in the eyes of Palestinian voters.

“This will make it more difficult for Abbas to go back into his old patterns,” said Mouin Rabbani, an Amman-based senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, a think tank. “Events may be pushing him into a direction that he doesn’t want to go. But if he doesn’t change course, he might pay the price politically.”

The Israeli government seems mindful of the new pressure facing Abbas. Just a month ago, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman launched a public campaign to oust Abbas, calling him a “liar,” “despot” and “obstacle to peace.” Lieberman said Israel was considering punishing Abbas for his U.N. bid by canceling the Oslo peace accords, building new settlements and halting tax revenue transfers.

But the clash with Hamas — a group that continues to believe in armed resistance and does not recognize Israel’s right to exist — made Abbas, who disavows violence, appear more moderate by comparison.

On Tuesday, Israeli officials announced that they would constrain any retaliatory measures against Abbas, at least for the time being. They said they might temporarily withhold tax revenue transfers to recoup about $180 million in unpaid electricity bills, but that more punitive steps would be postponed.

“We decided to respond in a measured manner and wait to see what Palestinians do next,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor. “We hope the confrontation ends there.”

Israeli officials acknowledge that Abbas is being challenged by the regional changes.

“Everything going on in the Arab world is forcing him to be more confrontational,” Palmor said. “Our worry now is that this confrontational attitude won’t stop at the U.N. General Assembly, but will move to the ICC or the Geneva Convention. Then we could end up in spiral of international confrontation that takes the Palestinians further and further away, and creates a very negative atmosphere that will make peace talks impossible.”

For Abbas, the first peace talks he is likely to pursue after Thursday’s vote will be with Hamas, the rival Palestinian faction. Over the last two weeks, the factions have renewed their attempt to reconcile. Egypt is expected to mediate such talks, perhaps as soon as next month.

But such reconciliation will further alienate Abbas from the United States and Israel, which view Hamas as a terrorist organization. U.S. lawmakers have held up more than $200 million in aid to the authority because of questions about the U.N. bid and Fatah’s possible reconciliation with Hamas.

In a shift from a year ago, when Abbas unsuccessfully sought U.N. membership in the Security Council, Hamas this time has voiced support for the diplomatic campaign. Hamas officials, who agreed to a cease-fire with Israel last week, say they see an opportunity to draw Abbas away from the failed peace process.

“We need each other,” said Ghazi Hamad, Hamas’ deputy foreign minister. “Abbas needs the resistance for his political negotiations. And we can’t rely solely on armed resistance. We should use all means, including military resistance, political action, economic boycott, everything.

“The strategy of Hamas and Abbas should not work against each other. This makes us weak and creates a golden opportunity for Israel.”