Nov. 27 (Bloomberg) -- A few weeks ago, the U.S. and Israel were painting Mahmoud Abbas, leader of the Palestinian faction Fatah, as an extremist for vowing to ask the United Nations on Nov. 29 to grant Palestine status as a nonmember observer state.
In light of the violence just unleashed on Israel by Fatah’s rival, Hamas, it now seems a relatively mild maneuver. Growing popular support for Hamas’s belligerence makes Abbas an increasingly rare moderate, whose legitimacy needs to be bolstered by the international community.
In the past, we have opposed Abbas’s UN campaign as a pointless diversion from direct talks to settle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At this stage, however, it might well be worth letting Abbas score a political victory at the UN -- particularly if it reinforces his viability among his own people.
The U.S. and Israel object to Abbas’s UN gambit on the grounds that it violates the notion that the Israelis and Palestinians should negotiate a settlement themselves with neither side taking steps to predetermine the outcome. This makes good sense, though it would be an easier point to argue if Israel held back on West Bank settlement expansion, which by its nature unilaterally affects the size and shape of a future Palestinian state.
UN observer status, a status short of full membership as a state, would mainly give the Palestinians slightly more diplomatic heft. It could, however, allow Palestine access to the International Criminal Court, where it could challenge Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. This is a legitimate concern for Israel, but at this stage a remote one.
Abbas clearly has the simple majority he needs at the UN General Assembly. If he goes ahead, the Israelis have threatened to withhold tax revenue they collect for the Palestinian Authority, which he leads. The U.S. could cut off millions of dollars in aid. For Abbas, however, failure to pursue the UN vote could mean losing much more: his credibility as a Palestinian leader.
That is in no one’s interest but Hamas’s. Abbas represents the hope, on the Palestinian side, for a peaceful resolution of the conflict. Days before the most recent spasm of Israel-Hamas fighting, he dropped a precondition for talks that had stymied earlier efforts to restart them: a freeze on Jewish settlement-building.
After nine years of on-again, off-again talks, Palestinians are frustrated by their lack of progress toward self-determination. Even if they don’t believe Hamas will succeed in destroying the state of Israel, there are those tempted to confuse violence with a sense of agency.
Abbas should be given the opportunity to demonstrate that his way will achieve more for the Palestinians than Hamas’s. The U.S. and Israel can vote against Abbas at the UN, but their opposition should end there and not with penalties. Since 2007, when internecine fighting left Hamas in control of the Gaza Strip and Fatah governing in the West Bank, the U.S. has doubled its assistance to Abbas’s government. Continuing this flow of funds, which amounts to about $300 million a year, will support the development and reform agenda of Salam Fayyad, Abbas’s respected (and moderate) prime minister.
The Palestinians need to see a clear choice: stagnation in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, hope for the future in the Fatah-led West Bank. Perhaps then they will support leaders who offer them a way forward rather than the fleeting satisfaction of bloodlust.
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