President Mahmoud Abbas has dodged a fatal bullet. For years, he has found himself under a barrage of criticism for his perceived weakness before the US and Israel. Last Friday, in one decisive move at the UN Security Council, he changed the focus of his people’s skepticism towards his style of government and directed their anger towards the United States. In the current regional atmosphere, it was an ace in the hole.
On February 18, the US vetoed a draft resolution in the UNSC condemning illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank and calling for their halt. While the US veto was expected –” nine out of the 10 US vetoes since 2000 have been used against resolutions deemed anti-Israel –” Abbas’ stance against the powers that be was not.
Abbas and the PLO were very aware of the risks should they “anger the gods” by not cancelling the vote, but caving in to their demands would have been much more detrimental. In today’s world, President Abbas and his West Bank leadership (not to mention the isolated Hamas government in Gaza) are living a precarious existence. Arab peoples are rising up in the millions, calling for a change of leadership, for dictators to step down and for democracy to prevail. In Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain, Arabs have shown they are willing to risk their lives for democratic and reformed systems. So far in Palestine, people have channeled their demands towards calling on their leaders to reconcile, to end the split that has divided society and politics for years. However, as quickly as the volcano erupted in Tunisia and Egypt, Abbas knows it could erupt at home. The Palestinian Authority is rife with allegations of corruption, mismanagement and nepotism. The PLO, the umbrella organization for all Palestinians, is under a different kind of attack since it is responsible for negotiations with Israel. The latest scandal of the Palestine Papers caused considerable damage to the leadership’s credibility and trust among the people, something they have been trying to remedy since then. The resignation of chief negotiator Saeb Erekat has been the most immediate and obvious effect.
The draft resolution comes in yet another context, that of Justice Richard Goldstone. Back in 2009, the PLO and President Abbas called for the postponement of Goldstone’s report on Gaza to be discussed in the Human Rights Council under American pressure. The Palestinians were infuriated and the leadership had to backtrack so as not to look too weak.
Abbas cannot afford another fiasco, especially now with all the changes in the region. Besides, the UN draft resolution was carefully worded, in terms already accepted by the United States on settlements. There was still that inkling of hope that the US administration would not disappoint.
It didn’t happen. Instead, US President Barack Obama made a personal phone call to Abbas trying to “persuade” him to halt the vote at the last minute. Rumor has it that the Americans are even threatening to cut off the PA’s “allowance” for being so disobedient. But the fact remains that Abbas stood his ground, regardless of Obama’s call and monetary pressures, all of which were part of America’s attempts to one, appease Israel and two, to extricate themselves from a rather sticky situation. America does not, in the end, want to be perceived as anti-democratic.
The rewards for Abbas’ stand were almost immediate. Palestinians took to the streets in protest of the US’s veto, its hypocrisy and its double standards. Abbas lost the resolution but won over his people, at least for now. With even more good news of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad calling on Hamas to join the government, the leadership just might be on the road to redemption. But if Arab leaders have learned anything from all the turmoil, it is that stagnant and corrupt autocracies cannot last. Let’s hope our own leadership has taken this lesson to heart.