His application for full membership in the UN of a Palestinian state on the borders that prevailed before the 1967 Arab-Israeli war is already resetting the terms for negotiation.
The UN Security Council is meeting to discuss the application today, but an actual vote will probably be delayed for weeks. In the interim, frantic lobbying and diplomacy is under way to somehow convince Mr. Abbas – whose move seems wildly popular in the West Bank – to back away and open a new round of talks with Israel instead.
After years of eroding legitimacy (PA elections scheduled for 2009 were canceled because of the rift with Hamas, which controls Gaza) and the failure of negotiations to deliver a state or stop the expansion of settlements, Abbas was seen as weak and tired by his own people. For the moment, at least, his popularity has surged again thanks to his symbolic – but nevertheless powerful – move at the UN.
Abandoning the UN route now would be catastrophic to his own standing – at least without something firm in hand. Abbas held firm in a speech in Ramallah Sunday. "We will not accept [negotiations] until legitimacy is the foundation and they cease settlement completely," he told a flag-waving crowd.
PA negotiator Nabil Shaath was even more stark in comments to Maan news agency, criticizing President Obama's promise to block the Palestinian statehood bid on the Security Council as he ramps up his 2012 reelection campaign.
“Obama prefers to capitulate to pressure from the Zionist lobby but he will lose a lot in the Arab world," said Mr. Shaath. "The Palestinians won’t pay the price for his re-election. No one could force us to backtrack."
Hamas rejects the statehood bid
The attitude of Abbas – who called for "peaceful resistance" and diplomacy in his speech – was strongly contrasted with the behavior of Hamas in Gaza on Friday. (Hamas is opposed to two states and wants the return of everything lost in 1948.)
Hamas banned public gatherings in support of Abbas' move, confiscated Palestinian flags, and issued threats against supporters of Abbas. In at least one instance, they raided a coffee shop in Gaza City showing the speech and arrested the owner.
In the battle for popular support between Hamas and Abbas' Fatah, seeking UN recognition can help tip the balance, and Abbas knows this.
Where does this leave us? With direct negotiations looking less likely in the short term than ever before.
The Quartet 'proposal'
The Quartet's "proposal" amounts to a vague statement of a long-held desire – peace between the Israelis and Palestinians – with an ambitious timeline that hopes for a complete agreement between the two sides by December of next year. Its very weakness is a measure of how the Israelis and Palestinians have drifted further apart since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. There simply isn't a breakthrough to be found without the bending of the Israelis, the Palestinians, or more probably, both.
There are no suggestions as to how, precisely, the 43-year-old questions of final borders, the return of Palestinian refugees, and how many Israeli settlements would be allowed to remain can be answered in the next 15 months. How to balance the Palestinian demand that East Jerusalem be its capital against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's insistence that an undivided Jerusalem will remain in Israel's hands, or Israel's desire to maintain a large military occupation on Palestinian territory after a deal again Palestine's desire for full sovereignty, are likewise not dealt with.
The Quartet merely calls for a return to talks "without delay or preconditions." That's been warmly welcomed by Israel. No surprise there. That's been their position all along. And unsurprisingly it's extremely unpopular with Abbas, since Israeli settlement expansion occurs every day, something he says makes good-faith negotiations on the future status of the West Bank impossible.
But the right-wing coalition that Netanyahu relies on is filled with members like Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, who favor rapid settlement expansion and appear interested in annexing much of the West Bank. Netanyahu is demanding that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state before they get their own state – something that amounts from the Palestinian side to giving up the right of return of refugees for nothing concrete in return.
"The Palestinians cannot negotiate any proposal that is not based on 1967 borders and does not ensure a settlement freeze in the West Bank," Abbas said in an interview with the pan-Arab daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, adding that, "Netanyahu's ideological positions do not allow him to advance." Aides to Abbas have grown convinced that Netanyahu is committed to the idea of a greater Israel to encompass most of the West Bank – or Judea and Samaria, the biblical names which many Israelis use to refer to the land.
Netanyahu, in his speech to the UN after Abbas on Friday, repeatedly referred to this historic claim. "Jacob and his 12 sons roamed these same hills of Judea and Samaria 4,000 years ago, and there's been a continuous Jewish presence in the land ever since," he told the UN. Abbas, for his part, didn't utter the words "Jew" or "Jewish" once in his speech, something many Israeli politicians took as a slap in the face.