Make no mistake, the Palestinian Authority is in dire straits. The PA is facing many problems, all of which are serious enough to push Mahmoud Abbas to unilateral action at the UN with all the risks this move entails. For Abbas, this is his biggest test as leader of the PA and the outcome, either positive or negative for the Palestinians, could define his legacy.
A major problem facing the PA today is its lack of funds. The PA is going bankrupt. The fact a majority of West Bank Arabs are employees of the PA is a great cause of concern for the current leadership. The PA, being totally dependent on donations from the US, UN, Arab states, and from Israel, has had to contend with what will happen to law and order in the West Bank considering their economic crisis and overall chaos in the Middle East. However, the Palestinian Authority has managed to use their financial crisis as a tactic to support its actions at the UN. They have implied that due to stagnated peace talks, they must take action at the UN. If funds are cutoff or withheld for an indefinite amount of time, as a result of actions in the UN, there will be nothing left to stop PA militias and US trained and funded Palestinian security forces from resorting to violence. The threat of violence has long been a tactic the PA is willing to utilize to keep its coffers full.
In the last few weeks, two events signalled the scale of the PA’s financial woes; first, was a report from the IMF stating the PA was experiencing severe economic problems, its greatest since new economic reforms in 2007, and that immediate emergency measures be implemented to avert a complete collapse. Second, was a donation from Saudi Arabia, totalling some $200 million dollars that was given to the PA to keep it functioning and avoid collapse. Subsequently, Palestinian PM Fayyad’s internationally supported and advised state building project, which involved a show of financial growth and institutional building with the goal of preparing the PA for statehood. This plan is now in jeopardy.
Along with financial issues, the PA need not look far to see the chaos engulfing in the Arab world. The threat of an uprising, like the uprisings and/or protests in Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Iran, Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen, and to some extent Jordan, against Abbas’s regime is very real. Abbas, who rules in the shadow of Yasser Arafat, has remained in power without holding elections or allowing any serious opposition against him. Like most Middle Eastern states, PA rule in area A of the West Bank is anything but democratic. During his speech in Ramallah last week, Abbas issued a statement that alluded to a concern for his regime’s stability. He requested his people not to take to the streets in protest, at least ones not sanctioned by the PA. Meaning, the PA would take care of the situation and the well-being of the population under its jurisdiction, thus the people need not take action for any grievances they may hold. Given the economic crisis, illegitimate rule, and lack of progress in confronting Israel, one could see the serious possibility of the “Arab Spring” toppling the PA in the West Bank.
Abbas’s rule is also threatened by an increasing Hamas presence in the West Bank. The PA has tried for several years to cleanse the West Bank of any significant Hamas presence, as Hamas is ideologically and politically opposed to the PA and seeks to improve its strength east of Jerusalem. A Hamas takeover in the West Bank, like what happened in Gaza during 2007, is very real and if it hadn’t been for US funding and training of PA security forces, this likely would have happened. Israel’s recent sweep of the Hebron area, a known hotbed of militancy, netting some 13 Hamas terror cells totalling over 100 members, is suggestive of a growing Hamas presence, which bothers both the PA and Israel. The PA is in a difficult position, as it always has concerning resistance to Israel. Hamas, which openly calls for Israel’s destruction and establishing an Islāmic state after its destruction, has recently controlled the level of resistance in the Palestinian resistance against Israel. The Middle East today is consumed with fervent anti-Israel sentiment and recent actions and/or threats from Egypt, Jordan, and Turkey are testament to this. Thus, where does the PA fit in? It must show that it is in someway confronting Israel. The PA, like any other political organization, needs legitimacy and neighboring states are stealing the political spotlight. At their current rate, they are on the verge of losing their legitimacy, if they haven’t already.
The situation on the ground is changing by the hour. Before Abbas left the Mukata in Ramallah for New York, there was a flurry of reports suggesting that he was under tremendous pressure from foreign powers to abandon his unilateral bid for statehood. He even admitted so himself, as at least three members of the Quartet; Russia, the European Union, and the US were pressuring Abbas to seek a compromise and avoid a UN showdown. Over the past year, Abbas has used the threat of unilateral action at the UN as diplomatic leverage to pressure Israel and the US into establishing preconditions for the PA in future negotiations. However, it is likely that even if Netanyahu would offer such terms, they would be turned down.
A strategy to internationalize the conflict with Israel has also affected the decision to head to the UN. After years of diplomatic criticism lamented towards Israel, much of it designed by the PA, they have managed to successfully push the issue of “Palestine” at the very top of the international agenda. The PA has conducted a campaign of combating Israel on the international stage; by targeting international public opinion and their leaders with almost ceaseless protests, demonstrations, violence, riots, social media campaigns, conferences, legislation, and boycotts. Besides the world powers; such as the US, Great Britain, France, Russia, China, India, Germany, which support quality relations with Israel, there is a perception that Israel is diplomatically isolated. Much of this propagated by media and gives the perception that Israel is in no place to challenge a Palestinian UN bid. The perception of Israeli diplomatic isolation is another cause for the PA statehood bid.
Abbas realized that given the many threats to his rule in Ramallah and to the PLO as a whole, he needed to take a bold initiative. The Arabs in the West Bank were told over and over that they will have their state, whether next to Israel or not is another story. With this being said, the PA, in its search for legitimacy and a show of resistance, has worked West Bank Arabs into such a frenzy that anything less than a Palestinian “victory” over Israel at the UN could be very dangerous. Abbas has boxed himself and the Palestinian movement into three corners; one with Israel, one with the US, and one with Palestinians themselves. Given there is practically zero chance of the PA being declared a full member state this week at the UN, the strategic importance of this unilateral action isn’t necessarily from any tactical victory Abbas may garner, rather the real danger comes from what he may not achieve.