Abbas stands to gain from UN gambit

By Karin Laub

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, Sept. 22 2011 9:00 p.m. MDT

Palestinians burn manipulated pictures of US President Barack Obama during an anti U.S. demonstration in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Thursday, Sept. 22, 2011. Palestinian protesters have denounced President Barack Obama for his opposition to their bid to win U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state.

Associated Press

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The drama over the Palestinians' bid for U.N. recognition is still unfolding, but President Mahmoud Abbas appears to have won new respect at home for standing up to the United States and moving their decades-long quest for statehood back to the center of the world stage.

Recognition of Palestine — even in a possible watered-down form, since full U.N. membership is blocked by a certain U.S. veto — won't bring the Palestinians true independence anytime soon. It might not even be enough to improve their hoped-for leverage in future border talks with Israel.

But despite such uncertainties and the risk of a serious rift with Washington, Abbas and his aides say they had to try to break the diplomatic impasse of recent years with a bold move.

Abbas was losing domestic credibility — as well as political ground against militant rival Hamas — by sticking to the old formula of U.S.-brokered negotiations with Israel.

Israelis and Palestinians tend to blame the other side for the failure to reach a deal. Despite several far-reaching efforts, gaps could ultimately not be bridged, and Israel's military occupation of the West Bank continues.

And the Arab Spring — a wave of anti-government protests sweeping the region since the start of the year — has made it more difficult for the Palestinian leadership to appear to accept the status quo.

"In the revolutionary atmosphere of the region, when the Palestinian leadership is unable to deliver anything, they have to be worried about their public standing," said Ghassan Khatib, spokesman for Abbas' West Bank-based Palestinian Authority. "With this approach (of seeking U.N. recognition), I think it will a little bit defuse public pressure."

A poll published this week yielded stunning support for Abbas' gambit, suggesting he had tapped into a hunger for taking a stand.

The poll of 1,200 Palestinians indicated that more than 80 percent support the bid to win U.N. recognition for a Palestinian state encompassing the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in 1967.

That backing comes despite widespread expectations of greater hardships as a result, including a possible cut in U.S. aid. Last week's survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, with an error margin of 3 percentage points, also cited a five-point increase, to 59 percent, in Abbas' popularity in the past three months.

Abbas — who never enjoyed the crowd appeal of his late predecessor, Yasser Arafat — might now also be better able to deflect claims by Hamas militants that he has been serving the interests of the West at the expense of Palestinian aspirations.

Such charges might have stuck more easily had Abbas not held his stance. Palestinians seem angry and even surprised at the support by President Barack Obama's administration for Israel at the United Nations. On Thursday, several dozen protesters held up anti-Obama banners outside Abbas' government compound. A day earlier, a masked youth burned a U.S. flag at a pro-Abbas rally.

Abbas will formally request U.N. membership for Palestine on Friday in a speech to the General Assembly, despite "great pressure" from the United States and others, said a senior aide, Nabil Abu Rdeneh. Palestinian officials say they believe Obama is siding with Israel at the U.N. largely because of domestic considerations as he seeks re-election next year.

Full membership can only be bestowed by the U.N. Security Council, where Abbas' quest is sure to be derailed, either by failing to get the required support of at least nine of 15 members or — if a necessary majority is obtained — by a U.S. veto.

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