Of the casualties suffered during Israel’s Operation Pillar of Defense in Gaza, the most monumental in its significance to the Palestinian people was perhaps the most ignored. The flagging relevance of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, one foot already in the grave, was dealt another blow last week as Hamas succeeded in its long-held aspirations for global recognition. As Arab and Muslim leaders paraded through Gaza, as the world clamored to engage Hamas toward stopping the rocket-fire on Israel, as media outlets tripped over one another to provide a platform for Hamas spokespeople, the best Mahmoud Abbas could do was glower forlorn from the sidelines in Ramallah.
And so it should come as no surprise that Abbas took to trekking up the Kilimanjaro of international forums, stabbing his flag in the sand and bellowing at the top of his lungs to be noticed. Abbas’s use of the United Nations as a stadium in which to wave his matador’s cape in front of an easily baited audience of adoring fans is old hat. What emerged as a dangerous new development however, was the conviction of various European countries that the best way to restore Abbas’s faltering standing was to support his feckless bid for non-member observer status at the United Nations.
The final tally of nine against, 138 in favor, and 41 abstentions demonstrates just how fully the Europeans bought into the Palestinian case that a vote against the UN bid was a vote against Abbas in favor of Hamas, a vote against so-called diplomacy in favor of rockets. In so voting, Europe has attempted to see a right made from the addition of a second wrong. This may have succeeded in temporarily returning Abbas to the spotlight, but it relegates the prospect of negotiations, and therefore Palestinian statehood, to an even more distant future.
Further, Europe’s pusillanimity has stuck the U.S. and Canada alone holding the leadership hot potato, the only adults left in the room. Even without European support, the UN bid was assured easy passage. But the Europeans have turned what would have been the folly of outliers and usual suspects into accredited validation, a Bizarro World coalition of the willing. Of 27 European countries, only the Czechs came up with a no. The rest, even those whose post-vote speeches signaled significant skepticism surrounding the bid’s value, could at best muster abstentions.
Despite the assertions of successive European representatives that their governments’ support for the bid was designed to spark the resumption of negotiations and the realization of a two-state solution, all are well aware that Thursday’s theater achieved the exact opposite. They know that the Magi-esque gift they bestowed on the Palestinians may encourage additional unilateral attempts to gain rhetorical ground in circumventing direct negotiations and in violating past agreements between the parties. They know that it risks discouraging the much harder and less glamorous work of trudging toward statehood.
And perhaps through the antics of the last few days, the Europeans have gained additional clarity regarding Palestinian motivations. The United Kingdom, for example, all but begged the Palestinian team to give them just grounds for supporting the UN bid, requesting what should be stock assurances that the Palestinians would return to negotiations without precondition following the vote, and that they would commit to not use their shiny new status as pretext to cynically pursue Israel at the International Criminal Court. Having been unable to wrest this bare minimum from the Palestinians, the UK was forced to begrudgingly abstain.
In truth, while recent emboldening of Hamas has added a dire complicating wrinkle, Abbas himself bears significant responsibility for the demise of his own reputation. By foot-dragging since 2009 and refusing to accept Israel’s standing invitation to the negotiating table, he has turned himself into the resident wallflower.
So while the Europeans are right to seek ways to bolster Abbas and his Fatah party and to sideline Hamas, the only way to truly succeed in this aim is through firmly demanding an immediate return to direct bilateral negotiations, the sole possible path to Palestinian statehood. Though they can’t fully undo the damage of their actions on Thursday, the Europeans can stem the bleeding by considering moves such as that proposed by the U.S. Congress: penalize the Palestinians for taking up charges against Israel in the UN court system or continued refusal to engage in negotiations. And they must make it clear they will no longer enable the Palestinian habit of international pageantry, an addiction that might deliver a short-lived high, but threatens the survival of the peace process, and along with it, Abbas’s ultimate legitimacy.