Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech to the UN General Assembly Friday was expected to launch a process that combines wishes with threats. Both sides of that equation show why the Palestinian leadership under Abbas, and Yasser Arafat previously, has achieved virtually nothing in the last two decades since the Oslo Accords launched the Palestinian Authority experiment.
Abbas specifically wants the UN Security Council (UNSC) to pass a resolution that would establish a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza within three years, and if that does not fly he wants the United States to revive bilateral negotiations that would see Israelis and Palestinians focus immediately on the borders of a new Palestinian state. If this approach does not succeed, Abbas also threatens to sign the statutes of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and take the Palestine state case there. He would reportedly delay this if major European powers recognized the state of Palestine.
How he expects to convince the United States to go along with these ideas is not clear, and the main reason for this is that Abbas has no bargaining power to nudge the United States into his camp. The Abbas approach is diplomatically weak because he is politically weak — for he has not marshaled behind him the forces and assets at his disposal in order to be in a bargaining situation that enjoys some credibility. Those forces and assets are considerable, and have been on public view on and off for some years.
They include a unified Palestinian government acting through a revived Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO); strong popular support for his position by Palestinians everywhere; the backing of Arab governments who have been fickle for years but will support a reasonable Palestinian position; and the support of millions of ordinary people and over 150 governments around the world that have spoken out for ending the Israeli occupation and establishing a Palestinian state. Abbas would be in a much stronger position at the UN if he had marshaled these and other assets to back his demands, and put some teeth into his threats to act in other arenas if the UN and the United States do not make progress on Palestinian statehood and the end of Israel’s occupation.
The problem here is two-fold: Abbas is making these decisions on his own without consulting widely among all Palestinians, and he is using the ICC as a threat, when it should be a central component in any Palestinian strategy that seeks to hold Israel accountable to the international rule of law. There is a long and deep (and continuing) catalogue of Israeli actions against Palestinians that contravene international humanitarian law (IHL) and various conventions on war crimes and crimes against humanity. There is strong support among all Palestinians for going to the ICC, including Hamas who must be part of any serious diplomatic initiative.
The Palestinian leadership should have turned to international legal forums years ago in order to pressure Israel by harnessing the power of international public opinion through sanctions and boycotts, just as was the case with Apartheid South Africa decades ago. IHL should be a central pillar of Palestinian diplomacy that is only effective when it rests on a foundation of international legitimacy.
Neither militants’ resistance fire from Gaza nor Abbas’ repeated supplications to the United States and Israel by themselves can force Israel to end its occupation, agree to a Palestinian state and work with others to end the refugeehood that is a central Palestinian grievance. The combination that has not been attempted, and would probably be more effective than all the recent diplomatic duds, would include the legitimating force of international law and conventions with the dynamism of popular actions, like non-violent passive resistance and international sanctions and boycotts, backed up by the deterrent power of military resistance.
Abbas’ approach that he articulates at the UN this week weakens all of these elements individually and collectively, when his approach should be precisely the opposite. The Palestine cause is just and compelling, but on its own moral and legal merits it has no power to leverage global diplomacy in order to achieve Palestinian rights and a lasting peace agreement that responds to Israeli and Palestinian needs alike. One of the unfortunate weaknesses that has left the Palestine issue unresolved for so long has been the incompetence of the Palestinian leadership, which achieved record heights after the Oslo Accords of 1993 created the Palestinian Authority. This move degraded the national deliberation and representation role of the PLO, and removed international law and conventions as the anchorage for any diplomatic moves. Abbas should be working to reverse these mistakes, rather than perpetuating them as he seems to be doing.
Rami G. Khouri is editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon. On Twitter: @ramikhouri.
Copyright © 2014 Rami G. Khouri—distributed by Agence Global