The past week witnessed two initiatives by the PLO leadership of the West Bank to advance its agenda of building a Palestinian state and diplomatically isolating Israel. Neither seems to have proceeded quite as planned. This calls into question the wisdom of the leadership. Yet the Netanyahu government in Israel can hardly rejoice: it is an even bigger loser. Nor can the Obama administration, whose attempts to deal constructively with the wave of pro-democracy demonstrations throughout the Middle East also suffered a setback.
The first initiative was the call by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) for municipal elections in July and presidential and parliamentary elections by September. It came shortly after Prime Minister Salam Fayyad was asked by Abu Mazen–for similar reasons involving the need to preempt public criticism–to form a new government.
Within days Hamas had, as anticipated, declared it would boycott the elections, meaning no elections at all in Gaza and no Hamas participation in the West Bank. Abu Mazen quickly began to backtrack on his elections commitment, while Fayyad suggested that elections could go forward with the PLO acknowledging Hamas’ rule in Gaza if Hamas agreed to elections.
What did Abu Mazen expect, that Hamas would join in willingly? Or perhaps the elections initiative was simply a temporary sop to Palestinian public opinion, which identifies with the current regional democracy wave. Now that Hamas has rejected the initiative, can Abu Mazen blame it for everything and forget about elections?
The elections schedule was also apparently about something else in addition to democratization. In September the Palestinian state-building program, with the wind of growing international recognition in its sails, is expected to appeal to the United Nations for recognition of a Palestinian state. Obviously, it would be advantageous for PA leaders when they go to the UN to be newly-elected through a democratic process, rather than holdovers from long-outdated elections, bereft of a genuine popular mandate. Logically, then, since Hamas is quite obviously not a party to this strategy, it would make sense to move ahead with the electoral process even without it.
This brings us to last Friday’s drama at the Security Council, where the Obama administration vetoed a Palestinian and Arab League initiative to condemn Israel’s settlement-construction policies. Because President Barack Obama designed his Israeli-Palestinian peace policy around a settlement freeze, it seemingly made sense for the Palestinians to use the settlement issue as a kind of "warm up" for what is to come in September. The US veto, accordingly, signals that in September Washington is likely to be equally intransigent regarding the state recognition initiative.
None of this is good for the Obama administration’s image in the region. Having fumbled and stammered repeatedly in its approach to pro-democracy demonstrations from Egypt to Yemen and Bahrain, it now appears to lack the courage of its anti-settlement and pro-Palestinian state convictions in the United Nations as well. With even the Europeans increasingly welcoming Palestinian statehood come September, Washington has now backed itself into an isolated corner together with Jerusalem. It seemingly attributes huge influence to domestic pro-Israel opinion, while ignoring Arab public opinion–which by now, after Egypt and Tunisia, it should understand is equally if not more important. And the administration’s attempt to explain its vote in the UN in terms of the need to protect a non-existent peace process is the ultimate insult to the intelligence of Israelis and Arabs alike.
The Netanyahu government can smugly pat itself on the back after Obama bowed to the will of some of Israel’s misguided supporters in Congress and the American public. One can even make the case that Abbas is mistaken in going to the UN rather than sitting down with Netanyahu, with the US present, and calling his bluff regarding the conditions for a two-state solution (although there is growing evidence that Abbas’ negotiators have come close to doing precisely this, by presenting detailed documentation of their positions that Netanyahu’s negotiators refuse to look at). It’s hard to tell who is weaker and who will ultimately pay the heavier price politically and security-wise: Abbas, Obama or Netanyahu. Certainly, Obama now has a score to settle with both Abbas and Netanyahu.
Right now, they all look like losers.