Palestinians Cry Out for Attention
It is in some ways unfortunate that the raising of the Palestinian flag Wednesday at the United Nations attracted more notice than the speech that preceded it. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s threat before the General Assembly to ignore or annul the 1993 Oslo Accords was more a cry for attention than anything else. Having achieved the long-sought photo of the flag rising skyward, there's no real point in keeping it aloft. Abbas, after all, may have a flag -- but he has no state.
Palestinians are keenly aware that Abbas, who has served more than twice as long than the four-year term to which he was elected in 2005, has little to show for his years in office. The Palestinians do not have a state. Nor do they have more sovereignty. Abbas has been unable to pressure Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into a settlement freeze. The International Monetary Fund reports that for the first time since 2006, the Palestinian economy appears to have contracted in 2014. Abbas is a deeply unpopular figure, and has said on more than one occasion recently that he is considering stepping down.
He hasn't, though. And even more significant that those other problems, he has been unable to keep the Palestinians in the center of international discourse. With Russian President Vladimir Putin increasingly pugnacious in Ukraine and now Syria, with the U.S. Congress having been preoccupied with the Iranian nuclear deal, and now with Islamic State spreading in Iraq and Syria, the Palestinians worry that they have become a cause for sympathy but not urgency. That is what Abbas was seeking to change.
To do that, he focused on symbolism. He got the flag raised. He pointed to the issue of access to the Temple Mount, a hot spot for Israel in recent weeks, accusing Israel of transforming the conflict from a political one to a religious one -- an explosive claim in this region. How many Palestinians will note, however, that the Palestinian Authority was created by the 1993 Oslo Accords which Abbas now says he will no longer consider binding? With Hamas a constant threat on the West Bank, Abbas needs both the Oslo Accords and the Israelis to keep him in power. It’s thus likely that not much will change, and Abbas’ fundamental weakness and unpopularity will not have been altered.
Netanyahu immediately decried Abbas’ speech as inaccurate (that was true) and incitement (also arguably correct). Yet Netanyahu, who has focused almost solely on Iran for years, now seems strangely myopic when it comes to the optics of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians. Knowing that Abbas was going to speak at the UN, his government still approved new settlement construction, which was bound to play badly in European capitals where Israel is already unpopular. Why the Israeli government has not done more to publicize the fact that many of the Palestinian protesters on the Temple Mount have long been paid by Qatar is not clear.
That is not to suggest that Netanyahu has many good options. His right flank, and particularly Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon, seems committed to placating the settlers. Given that Netanyahu’s popularity ratings these days are not high, the last thing he wants to do is to risk his government.
Yet even were Netanyahu genuinely inclined to make a deal with the Palestinians, the going would be rough. Some veteran Muslim observers, including Khaled Abu Toameh, have noted that Abbas is actually seeking to radicalize his population. “So while some Israelis, Americans and Europeans are talking about the need to revive the peace process … the Palestinians are clearly moving in a different direction. The PA's strategy now is to intensify its campaign to isolate and delegitimize Israel in the international community and promote all forms of boycotts of Israelis and Israeli goods. The PA is now convinced that the only way to force Israel to make concessions is through international pressure and the promotion of campaigns of boycott and divestment.”
Abbas’s UN speech lambasting Israel for the demise of the Oslo Accords (with no mention of the Second Intifada that actually did it in) and the flag ceremony fit that analysis perfectly. Netanyahu undoubtedly understands that, and is thus much less myopic than he seems at first. He knows that the reality of the international community is going to continue to frustrate the Palestinians. Indeed, several lead Israeli news sources on Thursday focused not on Abbas’s UN speech or the Palestinians, but on the discovery of a cell of Israeli Arabs working with Islamic State and planning to launch an attack in Israel, as well as Islamic State’s recent territorial gains just over the Israeli border.
That is why many Israelis simply assert that whether they like it or not, the status quo will have to be maintained. With Russian jets bombing anti-government targets just over Israel’s border with Syria, with Islamic State inching closer to Israel and organizing cells inside the Jewish State, the Palestinians' plight just does not feel all that urgent to people here. That will likely continue until the region somehow explodes -- most likely in a scenario that few can now envision.
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