With one well-timed speech before the United Nations General Assembly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas focused global scorn on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu while causing American President Barack Obama to undermine himself on the world stage. Equally importantly, Abbas partially resuscitated his reputation among Palestinians and regional powers, thus ratcheting up pressure on Hamas in Gaza.
The series of Arab uprisings changed Abbas’s relationships with the Americans, the Egyptians, the Israelis and others in different ways. But it also changed his relationship with his own people.
The waves of popular action against tyrannical regimes like the Palestinian Authority shocked Abbas into reaction. The PA’s heavy-handedness quickly stirred into action in much the same way as other security regimes throughout the region. Repressive, Mubarak-like tactics were quickly employed to quell small protests in the first part of the year, but these were only stopgap measures. Wilier than Mubarak, Abbas sought to win political approval for his leadership among disaffected Palestinians. It is still unclear whether he has succeeded, but his speech at the UN in September was met with approval by many, as the jubilant demonstrations on his return to Ramallah demonstrated.
In the zero-sum Palestinian political environment, his gains corresponded to Hamas’s loss. That loss has been compounded by Syria’s increased isolation (Syria is a patron of the Islamic movement).
For the Israelis, too, the move could not have occurred at a worse time. Netanyahu’s abrasive personal style has combined with objectively poor decision-making to produce a nadir in the country’s relationship with European, Asian and Arab states. International opprobrium has jumped dramatically in recent years, catalyzed by events such as the 2009 assault on Gaza, which killed 1,400 Palestinians, 300 of whom were children, and the Israeli commando raid on the Mavi Marmara that left eight Turks and one American dead.
The marathon diplomatic battle that occurred in the run-up to Abbas’s UN submission saw the Israelis desperately lobby global capitals to follow the Netanyahu line. The unpalatability of the pro-occupation argument combined with residual ill will from the Gaza and flotilla assaults to produce a mammoth Israeli diplomatic failure at the UN. It is worth noting, however,that Netanyahu’s pugnacious speech at the international forum was positively received at home; barring some unforeseen event, he will likely remain in control in Israel. Obama was a bigger loser than his Israeli counterpart. While Netanyahu played up the threat of global isolation to corral domestic support, Obama found himself publicly vilified from both sides in his own country.
The presidential election season is in full swing in America, and Obama — whose approval rating is less than 50 percent — has been scrambling wildly to court the Israel lobby. It was with his own imminent electoral contest in mind that he entered the UN chambers. And it was with his own reelection in mind that he propounded the Israeli government’s talking points. But his placation strategy has not worked. Regardless of his pandering, Obama simply cannot convince the Israeli lobby that he is their man. His speech did little to change the common perception that he is weak on Israel.
On top of this, his speech worked to alienate important UN member states. France, for instance, was clearly alienated from the rightwing Zionist position. Without making a complete break from the American stance, Nicolas Sarkozy indicated that the status quo was untenable and that it was time to “change the method" of pursuing peace. Likewise, the Saudis have publicly pronounced their intent to break from US policies in the region if the Americans veto Palestinian attempts at official statehood status.
It is too early to assess the full impact of Palestine’s statehood bid, and many questions remain unanswered. Will the Israelis react meaningfully to increased global pressure and isolation? And could the Europeans edge America out to take a more forceful role in adjudicating the conflict?
What is clear is that the move is a catalyst for genuine change. For many Palestinians, this revision of the status quo will be welcome.
AHMED MOOR is a contributor to Al Jazeera English and is a Master in Public Policy
candidate at Harvard Universitys Kennedy School of Government