Guerrilla diplomacy: Abbas's push for Palestinian cause in the UN

Dina Ezzat , Wednesday 7 Sep 2022

Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas is engaged in a rearguard action to keep the Palestinian cause on the international agenda, writes Dina Ezzat

Mahmoud Abbas
Mahmoud Abbas


In less than two weeks, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will arrive in New York at the head of his country’s delegation to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA). It will be the first UNGA without restrictions since 2019, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit. In his statement before the UNGA, Abbas is expected to ask the world to recognise Palestine as a full member of the international organisation.

In 2012, 138 UN member states agreed to grant Palestine the status of a non-member observer state, a move that at the time was considered a major step forward. The US was among the nine countries that voted against the motion and since then little, if anything, has changed. Washington remains as determined as ever to drag its feet on promoting the status of Palestine in the UN. US resistance serves to strengthen Israel’s blanket opposition to granting Palestinians state-level recognition in any international organisation.

According to Cairo-based European diplomatic sources, Israel’s task of blocking any further UN recognition of Palestine faces few obstacles. The level of support Abbas can command has declined even among some Arab states which make no secret of the fact they have no patience left with pushing for UN resolutions when there is no realistic chance of a Palestinian state on the ground. The same Arab states do not bother to hide their disapproval of the political and financial choices made by Palestinian leaders, including Abbas and his adversaries in Hamas.

According to an informed Egyptian source, Abbas knows his diplomatic push will fail. The problem is it remains his only option now that it is crystal clear the Biden Administration has no intention of adopting a more proactive attitude on the resumption of Palestinian-Israeli talks which stalled in 2007. At the time, Abbas himself stated explicitly that he had no interest in resuming open-ended negotiations while Israel continued to occupy ever more Palestinian territory with illegal settlements.

In his mid-80s, and in frail health, Abbas is aware there will be no final peace agreement in his lifetime, says the source. And after US President Joe Biden’s visit to the region in mid-July, which included a perfunctory stop in Bethlehem, Abbas also knows there is no chance of even open-ended peace negotiations. The maximum the Palestinian Authority is likely to be offered is some economic assistance in return for full security cooperation with Israel. And that, the source argues, is hardly the political legacy Abbas wants to leave.

The Egypt-based European diplomats say keeping at least some international attention on the Palestinian cause and scoring a handful of minor diplomatic or political points is the most Abbas can hope for in the remaining two years of the Biden administration.  

On Tuesday, President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi and Abbas were scheduled to meet to review the Palestinian leader’s plans for the UNGA, the work Cairo is doing to keep Palestinian factions away from confrontation, ongoing Egyptian mediation efforts to consolidate the ceasefire in Gaza, and work on the reconstruction of the Strip which has sustained incredible damage as a result of successive Israeli attacks.

Tellingly, as Abbas arrived in Cairo, Israel was increasing its attacks on the West Bank, the venue of the Palestinian Authority’s headquarters. On Tuesday, one Palestinian was killed and 16 wounded when Israeli forces entered Jenin in the occupied West Bank to carry out a home demolition.  

Meanwhile, according to the Egyptian source, Cairo is committed to supporting Palestinian diplomacy at the UN even though it has no illusions about the probable result given the lack of effective Arab support, Israel’s aggressive diplomatic pushback and the lack of political credibility Palestinian leaders are suffering from following 20 years of inter-Palestinian squabbling. The source said Egypt’s main priority, in the end, continues to be to mediate a more stable truce between Israel and both Hamas and Jihad, and to move further and faster with reconstruction schemes and plans to improve the economic situation for Palestinians in Gaza.

Egyptian diplomatic and security sources insist that until there is a stable political situation in Israel — and there are no guarantees that general elections in November will produce a stable Israeli government — it is pointless to expect anything of significance on the Israeli-Palestinian front. There are no clear indicators if the elections will keep the current right wing led coalition of Ya’ir Lapid in power, bring back Benjamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, or produce another right-wing coalition. In any event, the diplomatic consensus in Egypt is that Israeli willingness to move forward with any sort of political negotiations with the Palestinians is pie in the sky.

While in Cairo, Abbas was also planning to address the Arab League ordinary autumn foreign ministers meeting. The pan-Arab organisation is one of the few venues left where echoes remain of the attention once paid to the Palestinian cause.   

Abbas is also hoping that the delayed Arab summit will still convene in the first week of November in Algeria, which remains a strong Palestinian ally. Those hopes look slim, however, given the tensions between Algeria and a number of leading Arab capitals, growing discord among the countries of the Maghreb, and disagreements among Arab states over Algeria’s wish to reincorporate Syria in the Arab League after a decade-long suspension following Damascus’ brutal crushing of democracy protests of the spring of 2011.

Algeria, which was the venue for the declaration of the Palestinian state in 1989, is one of the few remaining countries where Abbas receives unconditional support. For the Palestinian leader, an Algerian-hosted Arab summit is perhaps the last chance saloon for a strongly worded resolution in support of his appeal for member state status at the UN, for more international attention to be paid to Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails, and for pressure to be put on Israel to refrain from its aggressive settlement activities. Though such resolutions will have little impact on the ground, at a time when the Palestinian cause is not even being paid lip service in the Arab world such resolutions from an Arab summit — if it convenes — would at least be something that Abbas could take home to an increasingly frustrated Palestinian population in Gaza and the West Bank.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 8 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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