As Gazans sift through the wreckage caused by Israel’s eight-day bombardment that ended in last week’s ceasefire, Palestinians are shifting their attention to two new controversies this week. As Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas was preparing for his historic statehood bid today at the United Nations, workers began exhuming the body of his late predecessor, Yasir Arafat, to allow doctors to perform an autopsy. While there may seem to be little connection between Mr. Abbas’s UN bid and Arafat’s exhumation, both events reveal a great deal about the current Palestinian leadership.
More than a year after Abbas’s initial request to the Security Council for full membership in UN, where it has languished in bureaucratic purgatory ever since, Abbas is returning to the UN to ask the General Assembly to upgrade the status of Palestine to that of a non-member state. Yet Abbas’s decision to go to the UN is not the product of a broader strategic vision but rather the lack of one.
Having tethered his political fate to the sinking ship of a US-sponsored peace process, Abbas has no place left to turn. Two decades of “peace processing” not only failed to bring Palestinians a state but have left Israel’s occupation more deeply entrenched and Palestinian institutions weaker and more divided than ever. The recent violence in Gaza has only highlighted Abbas’s impotence and growing irrelevance in Gaza, even as his West Bank authority teeters on the verge of financial collapse.
Abbas came to power in January 2005 determined to unify unruly Palestinian factions under his leadership and secure a peace deal that would end the decades-old conflict with Israel and establish a Palestinian state. Today Abbas presides over a divided and dysfunctional Palestinian polity comprised of a war-shattered and impoverished Gaza Strip that is beyond his reach and a West Bank that has been colonized and cantonized beyond recognition.
Abbas might have mitigated much of the damage to his leadership had he done more to put the Palestinian house in order, which has been badly divided since a brief civil war in 2007 left Hamas in charge of the Gaza Strip and his unelected Fatah faction in charge of the West Bank. Several agreements aimed at reconciling the two rival factions – which has been a central Palestinian demand since popular uprisings began toppling Arab dictators in early 2011 – remain unimplemented.
Instead of weaving together all three options – negotiations with Israel, national reconciliation, and the UN statehood bid – into a single, coherent strategy, Abbas chose to triangulate between all of them while fully committing to none of them.
The UN bid comes on the heels of yet another potentially explosive controversy. Just two days before Abbas arrived in New York, workers began exhuming the body of his late predecessor, Yasir Arafat, in order to determine an exact cause of death. And the two events may be linked by more than just timing.
In late 2004, besieged by the Israeli Army in his Ramallah headquarters for three years, Arafat suddenly fell ill before eventually dying in a French military hospital in November 2004. Arafat’s death became the subject of elaborate conspiracy theories, and many Palestinians, including some senior Palestinian Authority officials, continue to believe he was poisoned. The controversy was resurrected last July after an Al Jazeera documentary claimed to have uncovered new evidence supporting the poisoning theory.
The autopsy results could spark yet another crisis, as any evidence that suggests Arafat was poisoned will naturally focus suspicion on Israel, which has a history of assassinating Palestinian leaders dating back to at least the 1980s. Love him or hate him, Yasir Arafat was always larger than life, even while he was alive. As the architect of the Palestine Liberation Organization and a leader in both war and peace, Arafat is revered as the godfather of the Palestinian national movement. Ultimately, Arafat’s exhumation, and the Palestinian public’s fascination with it, is as much a commentary on the current Palestinian leader, Abbas, as it is nostalgia for the previous one.
The contrast between the two leaders is hard to ignore. Yasir Arafat is deceased, but his political legacy lives on. Although largely hated by the US, Israel, and even Arab leaders, he was admired, and in some cases even idolized, by his people. The reverse is true of Mahmoud Abbas. For all his moderation and acceptability to Israel and the international community, Abbas has little to show for his rule but a series of failed negotiations, a feckless and bankrupt authority, and an unprecedented division in the Palestinian national movement.
The one remaining card Abbas does have, however, is the United Nations statehood bid. As those close to him often point out, the choice for Abbas now is between going to the UN and going home.
With more than 130 countries already pledging to support his UN bid, a victory for Abbas seems all but assured. Yet the United States and Israel remain adamantly opposed to the move, even threatening economic and other sanctions against Abbas’s already beleaguered and cash-strapped Palestinian Authority if he goes ahead with it. Such actions are ultimately self-defeating of course, since the collapse of the PA would almost certainly mean the end of a two-state solution, as well as its greatest champion. Whatever one thinks of Abbas as a leader, he is the only actor on any side actively working to bring about a two-state solution.
Of course, Abbas’s UN bid is as much an attempt to salvage his own legacy as it is a two-state solution. In seeking to deny him that legacy, however, the United States and Israel could end up destroying the possibility of a two-state solution as well.
Khaled Elgindy is a fellow at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. He previously served as an adviser to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah on permanent status negotiations with Israel (2004 –2009) and was a key participant in the negotiations launched at Annapolis in November 2007.