Suicide by Statehood

Palestine's push for international recognition is tanking John Kerry's peace talks. Was this Abbas's plan all along?

Photo: ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images
Photo: ABBAS MOMANI/AFP/Getty Images

JERUSALEM — On Tuesday night, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, appearing live on television, signed the documents necessary for the Palestine Liberation Organization to seek membership in 15 international organizations. His speech was the culmination of hours of deliberation Sunday and Monday in Ramallah, as the Palestinian leadership mulled how to respond to Israel’s announcement that it would delay a long-scheduled prisoner release. Within minutes of Abbas’s speech, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry canceled his planned trip to the region — and today, the peace process appears, once again, near death.

But is it?

Certainly, the move to apply to a raft of international organizations looks confrontational, to say the least. At first glance, it’s a major move outside the Oslo parameters and is liable to sabotage the progress Kerry has made over the past year. What’s the Palestinian endgame? A vote for upgraded status at the U.N. Security Council? Many have speculated that the Palestinians will take Israel to the International Criminal Court, charging the country for war crimes in the West Bank and Gaza.

But we’re not there yet.

It is important to remember that the Palestinians don’t view their campaign for international recognition in the same light as their interlocutors. While the United States and Israel have been quick to characterize Palestinian international efforts as a threat to the peace process, the Palestinians have consistently upheld their belief that the negotiations and the international campaign can complement each other. In Ramallah, it’s a game of leverage — the Palestinians need to strengthen their negotiating stance with international pressure on Israel. The PLO has already stated that it intends to continue negotiating until the talks’ agreed-upon April 29 end date.

This isn’t the first time the Palestinians have threatened to go international. Their history with the United Nations goes back decades, but their history of using the international community for diplomatic leverage goes back to the Clinton years. In the spring of 1999, at the end of the five-year interim Oslo period — after which negotiations were supposed to result in the establishment of a Palestinian state — then-President Yasser Arafat began murmuring about approaching the United Nations for international recognition. Ever the master of pursuing multiple policy objectives, Arafat dispatched Saeb Erekat and Nabil Shaath to Europe to gauge support. In his memoirs, Dennis Ross recalled the effort the United States had to exert to pull Arafat back to the table, eventually involving President Bill Clinton himself and the promise of future negotiations. Within a few weeks, Arafat had secured promises from the United States for another round of talks. It was enough to keep the Palestinians focused on the bilateral track for the next decade.

But by 2008, the negotiations between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas appeared to be falling apart — reaching much the same point as the negotiations today. By the time the talks broke down in early 2009, the Palestinians were already beginning to formulate a different strategy. Palestinian policy groups began to sprout up, advocating a paradigm shift to "regain the initiative." When the U.S.-sponsored talks in 2010 again failed to take off, Abbas had a Plan B ready and waiting: He took the Palestinians to the United Nations.

So, why renew the international recognition campaign now? In a word: momentum. Up until last summer, the Palestinians had been rolling at the United Nations. They recovered from a botched 2011 campaign at the Security Council with a rousing, overwhelming vote to join the General Assembly in 2012. Support for the U.N. campaign paid political dividends for all involved. Abbas’s favorability numbers increased, while support for his plan reached 81 percent in the West Bank and 86 percent in Gaza.

When Kerry finally walked the Palestinians back to the table in July 2013, the one concession was that they would have to pause their campaign until the end of April 2014. In exchange, Israel would agree to release Palestinian prisoners in four stages, the last occurring on March 29. When Israel delayed this release, all bets were off for the Palestinians.

The fact is, pursuing international recognition is a political winner for Abbas. It’s rare to find a political issue that polls at 86 percent favorability in the Palestinian territories — and rarer still for any politician to fail to pursue such a popular initiative. When it became clear that Israel was going to drag its feet in the prisoner release and that even convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard might be released by the United States to sweeten the deal for Israel, Abbas was placed in a political bind. Senior Fatah officials have described Abbas to me as the "bravest of us" for his commitment to negotiations through the years, but even the bravest have their bluff called from time to time.

But Abbas’s move does not necessarily mean the end of the peace process. Among the organizations and conventions that the Palestinians applied to join, none of them represents a serious threat to Israel. Almost all of them are not even directly linked to the United Nations. Rather, they’re a series of conventions and articles, such as the 4th Geneva Convention, treaties on the rights of the child, and a convention on the elimination of discrimination against women. This is assuredly the limit for Abbas, the committed negotiator, to sign at this point. They show the United States and Israel that Palestinians are serious about the international campaign, but that they can be brought back to the negotiating table.

Kerry and the United States need to rally their diplomatic efforts now and reapply the pressure that initially halted the Palestinians last July. They need to secure the fourth batch of prisoner releases from Israel and do everything in their power to secure another pause in the Palestinian international campaign — a pause that ensures negotiations continue until the end of the year.

If bilateral talks aren’t prolonged now, time will only work against the United States. Without a way to stall the international campaign, it’s going to be incredibly difficult to slow things down when the U.N. General Assembly convenes this September, which will give the Palestinians further opportunity to push for membership in more international organizations. After all, they have the momentum.

Grant Rumley is a research fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the co-author of the forthcoming book The Last Palestinian: The Rise and Reign of Mahmoud Abbas (Prometheus, July 2017).