Not known for swimming against the tide, President Mahmoud Abbas has caught the world by surprise by insisting on seeking United Nations recognition for an independent Palestinian state.
During a speech at the General Assembly on Friday, Mr. Abbas, braving stiff opposition from the United States and Israel, appealed to world leaders to step out of their comfort zones and back his people's aspiration for independence. “It is a moment of truth, and my people are waiting to hear the answer of the world,” he said. “Will it allow Israel to continue its occupation, the only occupation in the world?”
His words — some would say a cry for justice — carried extraordinary resonance because, without sounding shrill or rancorous, they calmly defied the exhortations from U.S President Barack Obama, to fall in line. A few days earlier, insisting that the Palestinians should not knock on the U.N door, he said: “Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the U.N. If it were that easy, it would have been accomplished by now.”
Yet, Mr. Abbas thought it unwise to follow the stereotyped storyline choreographed by Mr. Obama, whom he had once trusted fully as an impartial role player to help shepherd his people to independence.
His unexpected insubordination has sent seasoned analysts scurrying for explanations. Critics say the Palestinian President confronted Washington and Tel Aviv so that he could record his name in history books. Without his doing so, future generations would have known him to be only as a supine leader, lacking the guts to take on the Americans and the Israelis even when the Palestinians were being humiliated by Israel, which was morphing into a proto-Apartheid state. That would have left a legacy unworthy of a man who had succeeded the late Yasser Arafat, charismatic PLO leader, who has not been accused even by his worst critics of bowing to foreign pressure. Some say Mr. Abbas' behaviour smacked of selfishness. With his act of defiance, in the evening of his career, he jeopardised the future of the Palestinians, who may soon be left alone to bear the wrath of their infuriated adversaries.
While the jury is still out on that one, Mr. Abbas may deserve greater credit than what his uncharitable critics would like to give him.
In fact, many neutral observers have come round to the view that despite his lack of charisma, Mr. Abbas, deep down, may have the rare acumen of a statesman, politician and gambler, all rolled into one.
It is, therefore, not surprising that those inclined to credit him with statesmanship would now be willing to suggest that the dour leader had understood, what most pundits have failed to register — that at a glacial pace all right — public opinion across the world had undergone a profound transformation. No longer isolated, a majority across the globe, including the West, were now ready to back Mr. Abbas' cause.
If this was Mr. Abbas' appreciation of the big picture, he clearly had hit the bullseye. Based on an interview of 20,446 people in 19 countries, a recent BBC poll has revealed that 49 per cent of the respondents now supported the recognition of a Palestinian state. Fewer than 21 per cent wanted their government to oppose the move.
The shift in public opinion was particularly striking in Britain, France, Germany and the U.S. In the U.S., 45 per cent of the respondents backed recognition, while 36 per cent stood opposed. In France, it was around 54 per cent versus 20 per cent. Germany and Britain also did not buck the trend. In both countries 53 per cent of the respondents were for recognition. These stunning statistics go to show that Israeli hubris notwithstanding, the Palestinians, on a global scale, have quietly begun to win the battle for hearts and minds.
Several factors have gone into reshaping the world's perception of the situation in the Palestinian territories. Israel's insistence on establishing a “security fence,” which has divided Palestinian villages into “Bantustans” — a reminder of a despicable practice that was once adopted by Apartheid South Africa — has got a particularly dim reception. Israel's contention that the threat of terrorism forced it to adopt such extreme measures has not been convincing enough either. Its offensive in Lebanon in 2006, followed three years later by its horrific attack on Gaza — shown with telling effect to a worldwide audience by satellite channels like Al Jazeera, may also have tilted the scales of public opinion against Israel. Finally, the right wing government, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, seemed to have lost the international public relations battle when Israeli commandos were ordered to attack ‘Mavi Marmara,' a ship ferrying humanitarian supplies for the besieged people of Gaza. This assault, which killed nine Turkish activists and opened a riveting diplomatic war between Tel Aviv and Ankara, appears to have struck a chord, helping rally worldwide support for the unhappy people of Palestine in the Israeli occupied territories of Gaza, West Bank and East Jerusalem.
Western politicians, especially in Europe, have been sufficiently nimble in sensing the shifting mood in their domestic constituencies. It was, therefore, not surprising that unlike Mr. Obama, who has the millstone of the Israeli lobby around his neck, French President Nicolas Sarkozy, who faces elections next year, said the U.N. must recognise Palestine as a non-member state — a penultimate step before its full admission into the world body as a sovereign nation. Choosing his words carefully, Mr. Sarkozy told the General Assembly: “Each of us knows that Palestine cannot immediately obtain full and complete recognition of the status of a United Nations member-state. The first reason for this is the lack of trust between the main parties.” But pointing to an “intermediate” position, he added: “Why not envisage offering Palestine the status of a United Nations observer state? This would be an important step forward.”
Mr. Abbas has also shrewdly weakened Hamas, the rival Islamist group which has entrenched itself in Gaza. A recent opinion poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip shows that 53 per of the respondents approved the performance of Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad's government in the West Bank. In contrast, the approval ratings of the Gaza administration led by Hamas leader Ismail Hanniyeh stood at 34 per cent. These findings followed Mr. Abbas' decision to move the U.N. for recognition — a step that was approved overwhelmingly by 83 per cent of the respondents. The support for an armed struggle championed by Hamas has also dwindled, signalling that the contagion of the Arab Spring — known for its non-violent uprisings especially in Tunisia and Egypt spread to the Palestinian territories as well. Nearly 64 per cent of the individuals, interviewed in the mid-September survey, said they opposed armed struggle, while 61 per cent were for popular, unarmed and non-violent resistance.
Despite the support Mr. Abbas has elicited, he has taken a gamble. Most Palestinians no longer have the appetite for another open-ended course of fruitless negotiations. However, Mr. Abbas insists that U.N. recognition is not a substitute for talks, which could take time to show tangible results. But after raising public expectations so high, he could become the victim of a popular backlash from his impatient people.
As the euphoria begins to die down, certain hard realities are also likely to sink in. By asking the U.N. to take the call, the Palestinians may not necessarily be within striking distance of being recognised by the world body as citizens of either an independent or observer state. The Security Council is soon expected to form a committee, representing each of its 15-member states. It could take several agonising weeks before it completes studying Mr. Abbas' proposal. With the Americans expected to cast a veto, it is also unclear whether nine-member countries will defy Washington. Unless this magical number is scaled, the Palestinian proposal will not be forwarded to the General Assembly, which will have the power to bestow upon the Palestinian territories the status of an observer state. Whatever the final outcome, it is clear that Mr. Abbas, underestimated by most, has for the moment seized the initiative and forced the rest of the world to respond to his imaginative call.