February 21, 2011

At the UN, Palestinian timing falls flat

What’s the secret to telling a good j-- TIMING!

A month ago today, I blogged here that Israel’s Foreign Minister couldn’t seem to get a break. Now the timing has turned against Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. 

Egged on by the Arab League, Abbas has dropped the ball on direct negotiations with Israel that might have delivered some new concessions for Palestinians, or would at least put the Israeli side in a tough spot. At the insistence of the Palestinian Authority, and Lebanon as the sponsor, the United Nations Security Council voted on a resolution condemning Israeli settlement activity. The United States exercised its veto, as one of the five permanent members of the Council.

Not only is Abbas in the process of losing some or most of the same old faces around the Arab League table (Tunisia and Egypt and Libya? Oh my!), Israel is starting to look a little better than it did two months ago. At this moment in Mideast history, it would be hard to dispute that the most reliable, stable country is, in fact, Israel. No one would suggest any possibility of Israel's government being overthrown except in the Knesset or at the ballot box. It's an imperfect democracy, but it is a democracy nonetheless. And perhaps the contrast has never before been so widespread, obvious, and accessible. 

This also makes the spectacle of last Friday’s vote even more absurd than usual.

Defying the United States once again, Abbas forced President Obama into vetoing the resolution, which undercuts U.S. credibility going forward, when Abbas may need it. By emphasizing settlements now at the United Nations, when President Obama is still recuperating from two years of pointless refereeing between Israelis and Palestinians, Abbas has hardly endeared him to the Palestinian cause. 

Rather than driving Obama closer to Abbas, Obama’s frustrations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have simply soured him on the whole exercise, at least for a while. And if it weren't enough that Netanyahu has been positioning Obama for sucker punches from vengeful Republicans at home, Abbas has now given Obama's enemies another chance to hit the Administration for -- get this -- trying to downgrade the resolution to a "statement" with weaker language and a condemnation of the Hamas rocket attacks. Critics piled on against Obama last week, apparently convinced there was room to doubt the U.S. veto (why was I so confident?).

Until a few weeks ago, Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa had cajoled and shamed Abbas into seizing every caveat Netanyahu could throw at him as another excuse to boycott the talks. Moussa, himself a former foreign minister of Egypt, milked Palestinian grievances as the classic path to succeeding Mubarak as President of a good, old-fashioned, pan-Arab autocracy. Yet now, even Moussa has abandoned Abbas so he can repackage himself as the anti-Mubarak for a new Egypt. Demonstrators across the region are pushing for their own rights now instead of worrying about Palestinians. Sounds like the mood in America, too. 

Mahmoud Abbas is left on his own now, playing catch-up with new elections, except for Arab states like Lebanon that still see an advantage in using Palestinian claims to mollify their own restive Arab populations. He can always count on Iran to focus its venom against the Jewish state, but then Iran is none too crazy about Abbas and it’s unclear which Persians will be running Tehran in a few months’ time.

Of course, Abbas may still force the United States into vetoing a resolution on Palestinian statehood. But that won't stop settlements, and it won't give him a legacy. Instead of finding new ways to embarrass President Obama, he might try to start putting Prime Minister Netanyahu on the spot by returning to the table and opening the talks on final status.

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