Mahmoud Abbas arrived in Beirut yesterday to secure the backing of Lebanon ahead of next month's bid to have Palestine recognised by the UN. The act is not merely symbolic; it is a last attempt by Abbas to create a bargaining position for the Palestinian Authority after a series of embarrassments have pushed him into a corner.
This trip is all the more important because the bid for recognition will almost certainly go before the UN in September while Lebanon is temporarily president of the Security Council. Abbas was all smiles yesterday as he posed for photos with Lebanese President Michel Sleiman and today he will meet the Prime Minister and visit a Palestinian refugee camp in the south. On Monday he visited Bosnia, another current member of the Security Council. The message to the US is clear; he is working hard to ensure a majority vote in favour and force them to veto the motion.
While it is clear that the US is willing to do so it would be embarrassing for President Obama, particularly in the Arab world. Only three months ago Obama reasserted that "the United States believes that negotiations should result in two states... The borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states."
This, in essence, is not so far from what the Palestinians are asking the UN to ratify. They are not, as Hamas have done, refusing to accept the existence of an Israeli state altogether, instead demanding a Palestinian state on the basis of the internationally accepted borders.
The reason that the US will not accept this deal is that in the absence of a negotiated settlement the Israelis will feel threatened. In the same speech Obama warned the Palestinians that "symbolic actions to isolate Israel at the United Nations in September won't create an independent state."
Yet Obama must shoulder much of the blame for forcing the Palestinian Authority into this position. For Abbas, normally so supine when faced with American pressure, has little left to lose. A series of humiliating defeats and a complete failure to secure reasonable concessions has pushed him into this potentially self-destructive bid.
The great historian of the Middle East David Hirst wrote that Barack Obama's failure to earn significant concessions from the Israelis during his first year in power pushed Abbas away from the table. Abbas, he said, "had banked all on America and its pledges; and now he had been personally betrayed".
Hirst was talking of Abbas's threat to resign, which he never carried out, but this is a similar situation. After the spectacle of yet more Washington talks last year, where Abbas looked more and more lost, he returned home with no deal and no serious concessions. Meanwhile Hamas were happily ridiculing him as a poodle of the Americans.
Within months the Middle East was erupting, with revolutions destroying all the old certainties. For some in the party the very foundations of the PLO began to look shaky.
So in April Abbas changed tack sharply and announced reconciliation talks with Hamas as well as renewing plans to go to the UN. He has also called for widespread protests in Palestine in the build-up to the vote at the end of September. No longer so supine.
The plan may well be backfiring, Hamas has already denounced them as a "mere mirage" while even Abbas's own prime minister has reservations about the bid. Yet Obama must be held partly responsible for this.
If Abbas had not sat through three years of failed negotiations, been widely ridiculed in the Arab world and seen the PLO's legitimacy challenged, he would still be a more amiable partner. Crucially Obama failed to earn any significant concessions on the key issue of settlements, with the Israelis continuing to build in the West Bank contrary to international law. Abbas was left with nowhere to turn.
Abbas knows that the US does not want to publically veto the motion. He is trying to seize back the political momentum for the first time in years. For the 76 year-old this may really be his last throw of the dice.
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