Ecstatic crowds filled the main squares of Ramallah and other West Bank towns on Friday to watch Abbas’s speech to the UN General Assembly on giant screens. Even in Gaza, controlled by Hamas which opposed the UN membership bid, thousands watched it in their homes.
But no sooner had Abbas declared “the time is now for the Palestinian Spring, the time for independence”, than Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took the stand to declare, “The truth is that Israel wants peace with a Palestinian state, but the Palestinians want a state without peace.”
Israel, ruled by a coalition containing ultranationalists such as foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, has ruled out putting an end to settlements on the West Bank, the reason why the Palestinians pulled out of previous talks.
And, claiming that “the militant Islamic storm […] threatens us”, Netanyahu told the UN assembly that “to defend itself, Israel must therefore maintain a long-term Israeli military presence in critical strategic areas in the West Bank”.
Neither Abbas nor Netanyahu suffer from the illusion that UN membership would establish Palestinian self-rule at a stroke.
Abbas’s intention was to break the US’s grip on the so-called “peace process”, frustrated by Washington’s failure to impose any conditions on the Israelis, even on the rare occasions, such as 2010’s spat over a settlement freeze, when it seems to have wanted to do so.
The Palestinian leadership cited President Barack Obama’s 2010 declaration that he hoped to see an independent Palestine within a year, as justification for their move. But, above all, they hoped to capitalise on the revolutions that have spread through the Arab world.
The Arab Spring places the US and the European powers in a delicate situation – dictators who were their closest allies in this economically and strategically vital region have been toppled and they need to retain or regain credibility in the eyes of the new rulers and the people who brought them to power.
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The Palestinians could also point to the praise the Prime Minister Salim Fayyad has received from such august institutions as the World Bank for building institutions needed to run a state and clamping down on armed groups in Gaza.
But these considerations were not enough to change US policy.
Leaving aside Obama’s congenital tendency to compromise, he has to stand for reelection next year and is facing Republican opponents who consider Israel an outpost of Western civilisation in the Islamic wilderness and have denounced his 2010 speech as a betrayal of the Jewish state.
Furthermore, an election in a New York district earlier this month panicked Democrats when they lost an apparent bastion of support to the Republicans apparently thanks to the defection of Jewish voters.
Security since 2000:
- Israeli security forces members killed by Palestinians: 342
- Israeli civilians killed by Palestinians: 751
- Palestinians killed by Israeli security forces: 6,484
- Palestinians killed by Israeli civilians: 53
So, to nobody’s surprise, the US has threatened to veto the Palestinian bid, which is set to go to the Security Council on Monday, and American diplomats have been working behind the scenes to scare off possible supporters.
But the Europeans do not have the American electorate to worry about and they do have economic interests in the Middle East and other Muslim-majority countries to protect.
They also want to bolster Abbas, whose presidential mandate ran out in January 2010 when elections were cancelled because of the split with Hamas.
After applying considerable pressure on the Palestinians not to go for “confrontation” at the UN, they have finally admitted that the situation is at a stalemate.
Declaring that peace efforts are in an “impasse”, French President Nicolas Sarkozy proposed giving the Palestinians observer-state status, a move immediately rejected by Israel.
So now the Middle East Quartet – the US, the European Union, Russia and the UN – has put forward a new compromise to avoid showdown at the Security Council.
It proposes new Israeli-Palestinian talks with a “preparatory meeting within a month”, “comprehensive proposals within three months on territory and security", "substantial
progress" within six months and “a timeframe agreed to by the parties but not longer than the end of 2012".
The Palestinians wanted a commitment to end settlements, a clear timeframe and talks on setting up a state within the borders set before the 1967 occupation.
The Quartet’s proposal is that they resume talks without the guarantees that they demanded when they broke them off a year ago. That would be difficult to accept if Abbas and his friends want to retain credibility in the eyes of their people.