In statehood bid, Abbas seeks legacy

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas looks on during the U.N. General Assembly meeting Wednesday.

Story highlights

  • Marco Vicenzino: Obama, Netanyahu may reject Palestinian bid, but Abbas stands to gain
  • He says U.N. recognition, whether or not it helps Palestinians, can allow Abbas' legacy
  • He says after Abbas' rocky tenure, success at the U.N. would pull him from Arafat's shadow
  • Vicenzino: With Arab Spring, Abbas sees region's generational turnover and he must act
Declaring "there is no short-cut to peace," in his U.N. speech, President Barack Obama swiftly rejected the current Palestinian bid for statehood. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Obama deserved a "badge of honor" for his stance, while a high-ranking Hamas official commented that "turning to the United Nations would get Mr. Abbas nothing."
To the contrary, getting some form of basic U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood, regardless of strategic merits, actually provides leader Mahmoud Abbas with something he lacks thus far -- a personal legacy. Whether Abbas' position ultimately provides long-term benefits for the Palestinian people remains a separate question.
For now, Abbas' unwavering pursuit of statehood at the U.N. provides him with vindication against his internal and external opponents and the opportunity to emerge definitively from the shadows of Yasser Arafat. Abbas does not want to be remembered as the modest but weak transitional leader who failed to use power effectively. Since assuming leadership in 2005, his tenure has been marked by dramatic twists and turns but no major breakthroughs.
While Arafat is remembered as the father of Palestinians who gave his people a voice internationally, Abbas aims to be the leader who gave Palestinians legitimacy as a nation around the world, even if this is more symbolic than substantive. Considering the challenges ahead, Abbas seriously questions his ability to preside over the formal birth of a Palestinian state. Therefore, he has nothing to lose. Unless considerable last-minute concessions can convince him otherwise, Abbas will continue on his current course at the U.N. and beyond.
Insistence from some Arab quarters for a more compromising approach through the U.N. General Assembly has proven futile. Abbas is determined to go directly to the Security Council for full recognition despite a U.S. veto. With firm support from regional allies, including Turkey and Egypt, Abbas is engaged in full-scale brinksmanship and apparently willing to assume any ensuing consequences or risks.
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Abbas to submit U.N. membership letter
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This development also reflects the drastically shifting dynamics in the Middle East.
How did Abbas' roller-coaster reign of power lead to this diplomatic impasse?
Despite slow progress, negotiations with former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were gradually heading in a positive direction for Abbas. But the route was cut short by Olmert's corruption scandals and eventual resignation, and these would be replaced by Netanyahu's continuous stonewalling.
Since assuming power in 2009, Netanyahu's priority has been maintaining his fragile coalition. In importance, it has eclipsed any dialogue with Palestinians. This neutralized Abbas and the broader peace process. Furthermore, direct internal opposition from Hamas further undermined Abbas' authority and credibility. Constant attempts by regional brokers to mediate Palestinian infighting and facilitate a government of national unity have largely proven fruitless. Egypt's most recent attempt last May was another false start.
Abbas' greatest source of disappointment and humiliation turned out to be Obama. Obama's initial approach of no-more-business-as-usual captivated many in the Arab world. It climaxed with the president's Cairo speech in June 2009, which created enormously high expectations. Obama's aura and Messianic rhetoric left the impression that he would help deliver a Palestinian state.
Not only did Obama overpromise and under-deliver, a now fairly consistent Obama-esque pattern, he performed a major policy reversal. Once Netanyahu dug in his heels, Obama eventually abandoned his initial insistence on the condition that Israel cease all settlement building prior to resumption of talks. Public ridicule of Abbas was an understatement. He was completely exposed and written off. Many concluded that Abbas' career was effectively over after reaching dead-ends with the United States, Israel and Hamas.
However, the Arab Spring gave Abbas a new, albeit brief, lease on political life and a temporary window of opportunity for his legacy. He clearly understands the region's generational change of guard is long overdue. From Abbas' perspective, his time to act is now.