U.S. opposition to the Palestinians’ successful bid for elevated status at the United Nations threatens to undermine the Arab moderates the U.S. wants to support.
The 193-member UN General Assembly yesterday granted the Palestinians the status of “observer state.” The 138-9 vote, with 41 countries abstaining, came as the rival, Iranian-backed group Hamas has won praise on the street and financial and political backing from Qatar, Turkey and Egypt for its conflict this month with Israel.
The danger is that by voting against the UN resolution pushed by Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the secular Palestine Liberation Organization and president of the Palestinian Authority, the U.S. risks inadvertently discrediting Abbas’s diplomatic approach to Israel, according to former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer. Voting against Abbas also could make the violence of Hamas, which the U.S., Israel and the European Union consider a terrorist group, appear more fruitful.
“The question for the U.S., and more primarily for Israel, is this,” Kurtzer said in an interview, “Don’t you see what you’re doing? You are, in fact, empowering the party, Hamas, which you say is far worse than the party you’ve been dealing with all these years.”
While Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist, Abbas emphasized his approach in his UN appeal yesterday, saying, “Our hand remains extended in peace.”
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said the U.S. opposed the “unfortunate and counterproductive resolution” because “it places further obstacles in the path to peace.” Only direct negotiations will lead to a two-state solution, she said.
As Abbas and other secular Arab leaders lose credibility with their own people, the U.S. loses some of its ability to play a mediating role in talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Mideast peace talks have been stalled since September 2010, when Palestinians insisted that Israel extend a freeze on the construction of homes for Jewish settlers in the West Bank, which Israel captured from Jordan in the 1967 Six-Day War.
On Capitol Hill, U.S. lawmakers have threatened to cut off $600 million in annual aid to the Palestinian Authority if the UN vote passed. Senator Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, filed an amendment yesterday to the Defense Authorization Act that also would eliminate U.S. funding to the United Nations.
“Any movement to strengthen” one of Israel’s “fiercest enemies must not be tolerated,” Hatch said in a statement.
In contrast, there was a “real dialing down” of Israeli opposition leading up to the vote, in large part because of concern about Hamas, said David Makovsky, director of the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
That can be attributed to the realization that it’s “politically unharmful,” Makovsky said in an interview. “You can also attribute it to their understanding that you can’t have a situation where Hamas feels like it’s on the rise and the secular leadership is on the decline.”
Abbas’s attempt to recapture some of the momentum at the UN won’t work, said Aaron David Miller, a vice president at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a Washington policy group.
“This isn’t going to provide any enduring counterweight to Hamas,” Miller said in an interview. Abbas “is in large part a desperate man,” he said, and the Palestinian Authority “doesn’t have a strategy” and “they don’t have any power.”
The decline of Palestinian secular leaders has been accelerated by events, including the Arab Spring rebellions against secular leaders in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt. Events have also seemed to strengthen Hamas and validate its violent approach at the expense of the Palestinian Authority.
In 2008, Abbas negotiated with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for the release of as many as 2,000 Palestinian prisoners, though the deal fell through. In 2011, after Hamas kidnapped Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, Israel released more than 1,000 prisoners in a trade that led to celebrations in Palestinian streets.
Abbas said this month there would be no third “intifada,” or violent uprising, in the West Bank, which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. While the announcement got some coverage in the Israeli press, Kurtzer said that, in contrast, Hamas’s rocket barrages into southern Israel drew the attention of the region and the world.
Kurtzer, author of a book about the conflict called “Pathways to Peace,” also pointed out that the Israeli blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has deprived the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority of revenue. Hamas taxes the tunnels it uses to smuggle goods and weapons from Egypt’s Sinai.
“The leaders that the United States wants to empower in Palestine aren’t going to last much longer,” said Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team. Abbas “is getting weaker and weaker, and Hamas is getting stronger.”
While Abbas “undermines himself,” Buttu said, the U.S. is “undermining him by objecting” to the UN vote and in what she says is its failure to support Abbas. The result, she said, is that the Palestinian leader and his approach look impotent.
“That’s the sad part,” Buttu said from Ramallah, in the West Bank, in a telephone interview. “He’s lost credibility among his people, and the Americans haven’t done everything they’ve said they would. And people are saying, OK, we’ll support Hamas, or whoever else helps us keep our heads up high.”
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