The deeper significance of the Palestinian move is to change the arena of action. Abu Mazen and friends can no longer regard the US as a fair mediator when its president is so easily turned by an electoral breeze. Obama has done all in his power to scuttle the Palestinian bid in the Security Council, threatening to use the veto if necessary. For fear of losing the Jewish vote, he is willing to bring on the hatred and spite of the new Arab world, which he once so avidly courted.
The Israeli government, for its part, has reacted to the Palestinian move with public trepidation. Months ago Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke of a “diplomatic tsunami” coming in September. And not only diplomatic: after the declaration of Palestinian statehood, it was thought, the hordes would pour into the streets of Ramallah, Nablus and Hebron. The army has readied itself with tear gas, dogs, horses and an additional device for crowd dispersal: an instrument that makes an unbearable sound, even worse, it is said, than the honeyed voice of Netanyahu.
But will the Palestinians go to the streets in support of their still nonexistent state? This is doubtful. True, large crowds turned out to hear the broadcast of Abu Mazen’s UN speech in the squares of Palestinian cities. Because he defied America’s will, his popular standing has soared. The deeper current, however, is one of weariness and apathy. Two intifadas have proved to the Palestinian people that there is no point in revolt if the leadership cannot be relied on. The first intifada, which took place almost a quarter of a century ago, gave birth to the one-sided Oslo Accords and the corrupt Palestinian Authority. The Israeli settlements doubled in size, Palestinian workers lost their jobs in Israel, and poverty increased. The second intifada, which began in the year 2000, turned out to be even worse. It culminated in a civil war between Fatah and Hamas, leading to the separation of the Gaza Strip from the West Bank—a rift that shows no sign of healing. With the help of the CIA, order has been established in the West Bank, and foreign donations have led to a temporary rise in economic activity there. But Palestinian exports, which go mainly to Israel, have not increased a bit since 1995. In terms of economy—to paraphrase Gertrude Stein—there is still no there there.
For all these reasons, the newly found faith in Abu Mazen will probably prove to be a flash in the pan. Given the deeper Palestinian apathy, we may wonder what Netanyahu has to fear. The only real threat would appear to be this: as an observer state in the UN, Palestine will be able to haul Israel before the international court in The Hague, charging it with building and populating settlements that are illegal according to the fourth Geneva Convention. Israeli politicians and army officers will then become “wanted criminals,” subject to arrest in any airport.
For Abu Mazen, however, the path to The Hague will not be easy. In practice, Palestine will remain a mere Authority, subject to the kindness of strangers. It will have its flag and its UN observer status. No army, of course, no currency—and still no economy. Everything entering or leaving this virtual state will be subject to the occupier’s approval. If Palestine nevertheless insists on using the international court, it will face immediate punishment by Israel and the US.
On the other hand, Israel and the US are in no hurry to cut off Abu Mazen. The establishment of the PA as ersatz state was one of Israel’s most important achievements. The on-and-off negotiations, continuing for more than 14 years, have enabled Israel to continue its settlement project while appearing to seek peace. True, this credit is rapidly seeping away, and the Arab Spring is quickly delegitimizing Israel. If the PA collapses—whether because of a stoppage in international funding or because of internal unrest—Israel’s isolation will only increase. That is what Abu Mazen is counting on when he shifts the arena to the UN.
The chief motive for this shift is to rescue the Palestinian leaders from the fate of the region’s dictators— Mubarak above all, who was the PA’s main ally. Public opinion is growing as an influence, because the region’s leaders have seen what it can do—and now they will have to campaign for votes in democratic elections. (Even the king of Saudi Arabia has suddenly discovered that women have certain limited rights.) Abu Mazen knows very well that he has reached a dead end with Israel and that if he doesn’t take action, the Arab Spring will eventually knock at his door. The UN is his final resort.
In contrast with Abu Mazen, who understands the significance of the Arab Spring, Netanyahu, Ehud Barak, Avigdor Lieberman and the rest of Israel’s governing coalition are utterly blind to it, as blind as the regime in Damascus. The result will likely be catastrophic.
It would be both fair and fitting for Abu Mazen to say to the Palestinian people and to the world: “We have tried in every way to reach an agreement with Israel, but to no avail. Given the lack of a meaningful peace process, our PA turns out to be nothing but a cover for the continuing occupation. Therefore, I resign and return the keys to the occupier. Let him take full responsibility in the sight of the world for those whose lives he determines in any case.”
Such a deed is unlikely, if only because Abu Mazen and his entourage would also be giving up the keys to the prisons where they keep the members of Hamas. But if it were to happen, the Israelis would then stand before two alternatives. One is to revert to military administration, taking direct responsibility for the lives of four million Palestinians—2.5 million in the West Bank and another 1.5 million including Gaza—all this on an Israeli budget that is already stretched. The only other alternative would be to withdraw at last—in the worst possible way, unilaterally—and recognize an independent Palestinian state.